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Perry’s Self-Defeating Secrecy

Avoiding tough questions won't fly in a national campaign
by Published on

It’s common for incumbent politicians with a comfortable lead in the polls to avoid public questioning. The idea is to limit the number of debates, press conferences, and unscripted moments—and any opportunity for your opponent or the press to hit you with tough questions, and reduce the chances of an election-changing gaffe. It’s called running out the clock, and it’s a tried and true political tactic.

But Rick Perry might be taking it to new levels:

—He’s thus far refused to schedule a debate with his Democratic opponent Bill White, despite the challenger’s best efforts to goad him into it.

—The Perry campaign has also announced the governor will not meet with newspaper editorial boards during the campaign.

—And the capital press corps is getting precious few opportunities to ask questions of the governor. Most of Perry’s events these days are nowhere near Austin, where many of the state’s political reporters are based. That means anyone wanting to ask Perry an unscripted question has to travel with the campaign (and the campaign decides who gets to ride along) or trail Perry on their own, all private eye-like, as an Observer reporter did back in 2006.

The Houston Chronicle’s R.G. Ratcliffe recently scored a few minutes with the governor for a short Q and A. And Perry met briefly with reporters after his speech to the Texas Broadcasters Association last week.

But those are rare exceptions. Most capital reporters have a better chance of landing an interview with Thomas Pynchon than sitting down with this state’s highest public servant.

This approach may be good politics—if Perry’s lone goal is another term as Texas governor. But there are two potential problems with Perry walling himself off from public debate and questioning.

No. 1, it does the public a disservice. Voters, of course, deserve to hear from their elected officials about important issues facing the state—through televised debates, news conferences, and meetings with reporters and opinion makers.

The second problem is political. If Perry has ambitions for higher office, then this avoidance of the press is also doing him a disservice. If Perry campaigns for national office, he won’t likely get away with continually sidestepping reporters. The national media doesn’t react well to that.

Moreover, the candidates in the GOP presidential primary will likely face off in numerous debates, and Perry would be wise to practice his debating skills on a small stage by taking on Bill White. Responding to tough questions and hostile opponents under the hot lights isn’t easy. And if Perry lets those skills atrophy, he’s likely to be embarrassed in a future presidential debate.

No one can force Perry to debate White or make himself more available to the press. But constantly shielding himself from public scrutiny not only robs voters of unfiltered access to their governor, but also harms Perry’s prospects for national office.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.