Rick Perry says there are too many debates. Is he right?

Well, yes. But not really. Rick Perry may well be right that, by historical measures, there are too many debates. But in this YouTube world, debates might be more crucial than ever.

Jim Cole/AP
Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry fills out his papers to be on the New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary ballot Friday at the State House in Concord, N.H.

Rick Perry says there are too many GOP presidential debates, and that they’re counterproductive. On Fox News the other day the Texas governor told Bill O’Reilly that his participation in all these word fights might have been a mistake.

“All they are interested in is stirring it up between the candidates instead of really talking about the issues that are important to the American people,” said Governor Perry.

His campaign says Perry is committed to appearing on stage at the next Republican debate, in Rochester, Mich., on Nov. 9. After that it will decide whether to participate on a case-by-case basis.

“There are numerous – 15, 16, 17 – debates, and we’re taking a look at each one and we’re making the appropriate consideration,” said Perry spokesman Mark Miner on Thursday.

Is Perry right that there are too many debates? Or is this a baseless complaint, like Emperor Joseph II’s infamous criticism of a Mozart opera for having “too many notes”?

Well, Perry is simply saying out loud what many Republican operatives believe, for one thing. As Byron York points out, there are a dozen debates scheduled between Nov. 9 and the Florida primary on Jan. 31. Given normal holiday breaks, “that’s a lot of debates in very little time,” Mr. York writes.

We count a total of 21 debates overall between last August and the end of the primary season. Totals vary, depending on what you define as a “debate,” but by our total there were 17 debates in the corresponding time period in the 2008 presidential cycle.

So yes, there’s debate creep. Plus, the events themselves are becoming less PBS and more “X Factor,” with flashier graphics, more attention to staging and other production values, and a general amp-up of attempts to define distinctions between candidates.

Jon Stewart hit this fingernail on the head with a bit that superimposed a Blue Angels fighter jet interior fly-by on the opening of a recent CNN/Tea Party debate.

Yes, debates can introduce to America candidates who aren’t well-known. But after a while, don’t they become exercises in survival, nothing but efforts by presidential hopefuls to negotiate a dangerous evening without committing some kind of perceived gaffe?

But that’s Perry’s problem – he’s committed more than his share of those gaffes. So even if he’s right, he’s wrong. He can’t afford to not debate because he can’t afford to continue to debate. Or something like that.

“We know he wants out of the debates. That is precisely why he should not have raised it himself," writes Erick Erickson, editor of the conservative RedState blog.

Also, it is possible that Perry and everyone else bemoaning the plethora of debates has missed a fundamental point: In today’s wired world, debates may be the campaign. Period.

Yes, there is all that hand-shaking in Iowa and hot beverage consumption in New Hampshire diners. But perhaps that matters less than those of us in the old school think. And maybe that’s why Herman Cain is doing so well and defying all those flavor-of-the-month prognostications.

Cain’s got little in the way of a national campaign infrastructure. He hasn’t even appeared in early primary states that much. Some suspect his campaign at least began as a book tour in disguise. But he’s done well in the debates – and now he’s a front-runner, maybe the front-runner, in the GOP White House race.

Newt Gingrich similarly has no staff and little money. But he’s on the rise, thanks in part to recent strong debate performances.

So here’s our suggestion for 2016: Presidential Debate Island. Candidates live in huts on Teddy Roosevelt Island in the Potomac and vie in such competitions as the “Wolf Blitzer Twenty Questions Limbo” to win New Hampshire delegates and other valuable political prizes.

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