Don’t turn down a debate

Mikael Garcia

It’s no secret that Gov. Rick Perry has much to lose if he were to debate Bill White. All things considered, though, agreeing to a debate with the White camp would be a smart political strategy for the Perry campaign.

If you don’t live under a rock, you’ve probably been following the back-and-forth chatter about the potential debate. In a nutshell, White wants to debate Perry, but Perry refuses to do so until White releases his tax returns from the ‘90s. White hasn’t released the returns, so Perry hasn’t agreed to a debate.

I agree with many of the editorials that have come out on the subject, most of which lambaste White for not releasing his tax returns, but also berate Perry for his suggestion that he can control the terms of the debate. But aside from pointing out the obvious, they’re missing the broader implications.

The sad truth is that both camps are playing politics with the proposed debate. In order to see this completely, simply ask yourself: What do the respective campaigns gain by positioning themselves this way? Perry’s positioning is obvious. If he debates, he leaves himself open to ridicule on the few issues he hasn’t addressed in his term as governor, specifically education.

White’s position is harder to pinpoint, though. White has a lot to gain from debating Perry, so his campaign most likely thinks that it’s more effective to criticize the governor for not debating than to actually debate him. Thus, White’s decision to withhold his tax returns suggests that there’s something very unflattering lurking there.

This may have been Perry’s political reasoning for instituting a deadline for White to release his tax records — a deadline that White missed. Perhaps it was a “test” to see if the White campaign would release the information. Now that they haven’t, Perry’s campaign can logically assume that White most likely had some real problems with his tax returns. He can use this to his advantage, but only if he decides to go through with the debate. By doing so, he’ll seem like the better man, rising above the petty politics of the matter to engage in a discussion of the issues, regardless of White’s tax status. And presumably, White will still not have released his taxes, which means a double win for Perry, even if he gets a few issue-related points knocked off in the debate. Whatever losses Perry suffers on specific issues he’ll make up for in personal appeal because Bill White has the speaking ability of a mime.

At this point, though, Perry’s decision has hurt his support more than it has hurt his opponent’s. We may not see this reflected in a shift in poll numbers — that is to say, we won’t find people jumping ship on the Perry campaign. But we may see a significant drop in turnout for Perry, which would be a tremendous boost for White.

Of course, there is still the contingency that after Perry agrees to debate, White will finally release his tax returns. This would still look good for Perry, showing that White was only willing to put politics aside after following Perry’s lead. One could also envision a situation in which Perry uses the debate to confront White on his taxes. I can only imagine the political sparks that would fly if White, after months of blasting Perry for trying to control the terms of the debate, agreed to debate Perry only if discussing his tax returns was off-limits.

Either way, Texans deserve a debate, and both camps should feel utterly ashamed for playing politics with our favorite state.

So to the White camp, I say grow up. To the Perry camp, I say take a page from W, our former governor whose popularity has steadily risen over the past two years. He was a real cowboy, and he never turned down a debate.

<em>Garcia is a government senior.<em>