The case for skipping debates: 7 reasons Perry might do it

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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By now, you’ve heard about the possibility that Texas Governor Rick Perry might skip some of the upcoming debates. This wouldn’t be the first time Perry eschewed conventional wisdom and slighted the media. As the AP reported in 2010, Perry broke from a “decades-old tradition” by deciding not to meet with editorial writers during his re-election campaign.

That might sound trivial to a national audience, but in the context of Texas politics, it was gutsy. Of course, what Perry faces now is not merely a gubernatorial election, but a presidential primary; the stakes are higher.

The best case scenario for Perry is that the debates he chooses to skip become marginalized; the worst-case scenario is that it is Perry who becomes marginalized.

And while there’s no dearth of pundits presenting compelling arguments for why Perry should not go this route — I thought it would be fun to play devil’s advocate.

Here are some arguments for why skipping some debates might not be so insane:

1. Debates aren’t targeted. A small percentage of the people watching a given debate on TV are likely, persuadable, and eligible voters who live in the early states. If someone who is already 100 percent committed to, say, Herman Cain watches a debate and Perry performs well, it doesn’t help him. If someone who is a Democrat living in Maryland watches a debate and Perry performs well, it doesn’t help. But when Perry is campaigning in Iowa, he can be pretty sure that he is reaching an audience of voters that might actually help him win. (Granted, the people in the debate hall are typically from early states, but they represent a small percentage of viewers.)

2. Nobody is saying Perry will skip all the debates. “There are something like 18 (debates) being planned … it seems like doing another dozen or 18 debates is not realistic,” Perry communications director Ray Sullivan told the Houston Chronicle Wednesday. That’s a lot of debates. And by skipping some debates — yet participating in others — Perry can avoid the appearance that he is afraid to debate. What is more, he might generate “buzz” and speculation over whether or not he will participate in a given debate. Lastly, nothing says this is permanent. Perry can try this out. If he gets away with it, he can skip other debates. If he doesn’t get away with it, there will still be plenty of others to attend.

3. Perry can show he is in control of his campaign — not the MSM. Leaders don’t always allow others to dictate terms to them — they set the agenda. Agreeing to every debate the mainstream media wants to host is reactive. This is an opportunity for Perry to show he is proactively seizing control of his campaign. Why let the mainstream media dictate his campaign strategy?

4. He can blame the media. From a messaging standpoint, Perry can argue that the debates are being used by the media to gin up internecine squabbles — that Republicans are merely pawns. In fact, he’s already doing that. As Perry recently told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, “… these debates are set up for nothing more than to tear down the candidates.” This is an argument that might actually resonate with some conservatives.

5. Let’s be honest — debating isn’t playing to Perry’s strong suit. Perry is good on the stump — and is great at retail politics. Instead of spending his time playing to his weakness, why not spend the vast majority of the time between now and the Iowa caucuses playing to his strengths?

6. What does he have to lose? Perry’s campaign is in trouble. Playing by the rules didn’t work, why not take a few shots down the field and see if he can shake things up?

7. It’s a tradeoff. Granted, there will be some blowback to this strategy — there is no doubt. But when you factor in the negative impact that a bad debate performance might have — and couple that with the time commitment — it might be a smart tradeoff.

Note: I’m not arguing that these points are potent enough to overcome the potential downside. As many others have argued, this gambit could make Perry look weak. What is more, it would anger the media — which is typically a bad idea.

But before casually dismissing this as crazy, it is important to note that there are some good arguments for doing this.

Matt K. Lewis