The missing Texas debate: How Rick Perry and Bill White both lose
Whoever thought that with the big issues facing Texas — a budget shortfall, controversial decisions about the educational system, a tough economy and a state of anarchy just over the border — that the big issue of the 2010 gubernatorial election would be whether the main candidates would debate?
With the midnight Thursday expiration of Republican governor Rick Perry's artificially-imposed deadline for Democratic candidate Bill White to release his mid '90s tax returns, it looks unlikely, though not impossible, that the two will meet onstage before the November elections. If they don't, it will be the first Texas gubernatorial election in 20 years without a debate.
So who comes out on top of this mess? We break it down by candidate:
Perry is the one who came up with this whole "I'm only debating if you release your tax records" business. And while transparency is great, it's not up to the candidates to decide what their competition has to do to be in compliance with running for office, and White has released his records for the last six years, made available the records of the source of his income and more than complied with what's required by state ethics laws.
Perry could just as easily say "I won't debate unless you let me look around your attic," or "I won't debate unless you admit on the record that Texas A&M is a better university than Harvard." But these would be just as specious and just as unrelated to actually governing the state of Texas.
Plus, if Perry has concerns about White's tax records beyond idle speculation, he would be free to raise them in a debate.
As Texas Tribune points out, it's usually the incumbent in this situation that refuses to debate, wary of making an unforced error and giving a less-familiar challenger more credibility and face-time.
Perry does earn the stigma of purposely running from debate (though I do love the way Perry discounted that point with his good ol' boy, "this isn't the case of a Texas Aggie being afraid to fight a Harvard boy," as if the debate would take place outside a bar). And it's more than a little insulting to the voters.
The combination of Perry finding reasons not to meet White, coupled with his refusal to participate in editorial board meetings, sounds like a case of someone afraid to be challenged on the issues in an unscripted format.
Let's not get it twisted: if Perry agreed to debate tomorrow, Bill White would be there. But whatever White gains in deflecting blame to Perry for not debating, he loses more by not actually having a debate.
Rather than standing on the dubious principle of not giving in to Perry's demand for his financial records, White should have simply responded to a dumb argument in a dumb format: Twitter "OMG, srsly? Fine. Will release #s tmoro. C u @ deb8 next wk. Cant wait to talk abt REAL ISSUES #perryfail."
But instead I think Bill White wanted to avoid looking weak by following Perry's imperious commands and campaigning on his terms. Congratulations, Bill, now you look weak by not getting the debate you seem to want so much.
Of course many say that as the challenger and the candidate who's down in a close race, White's decision to play chicken was the deciding factor. Perhaps his handlers think that his skills with facts and figures would just leave him looking like a policy wonk next to Perry's charismatic cowboy.
The Oct. 19 debate proposed by five newspapers and an Austin television station is set to go on, no matter who shows up.
One thing's for sure: If Perry and White can't come to a compromise and make their cases in a debate, the losers will be the voters of Texas.