Evan Vucci, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, gestures toward Texas Gov. Rick Perry during a Republican presidential debate in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011.
The following editorial appeared recently in the Chicago Tribune:
Everyone seems to agree that when Mitt Romney challenged Rick Perry to bet $10,000 during Saturday's GOP debate, he committed a major gaffe. Perry, who declined the offer, was happy to revisit the issue the next day, and Jon Huntsman started a website, 10kbet.com, to make fun of the former Massachusetts governor. Romney admitted that even his wife panned it.
Allow us to disagree. Romney's proposed wager was a novel way of informing Perry that his trousers were aflame. The Texas governor had accused Romney of endorsing a federal health insurance mandate in one edition of his book, "No Apology," and then deleting it in a later version. When Perry ran an ad leveling this charge, The Washington Post's Fact Checker gave it three Pinocchios — indicating "significant factual error."
If Perry thought he was truly in the right, he could have picked up an easy 10 grand. Instead, looking uncomfortable, he replied, "I'm not in the betting business."
Romney's ploy looked to some like a schoolyard taunt — as though the debates had been a model of statesmanlike discourse until then. To us, it looked more like a useful prod for truth-telling in an arena where all the incentives go in the opposite direction.
Americans have gotten used to politicians flinging falsehoods at each other, because candidates usually can get away with brazen deceit. Maybe if Sen. Fibster B. Lyon had to risk a sizable chunk of his own capital, he'd be more circumspect. It certainly worked on Perry, whose smile froze as he pondered the unhappy consequences of being caught out.
A similar ploy might have given pause to Newt Gingrich before he denied ever supporting a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Or Michele Bachmann before she misrepresented a study to discredit President Barack Obama's health-care reform. Or Romney himself before he claimed Obama wants Israel to retreat to its 1967 borders.
Afterward, Perry said Romney proved himself "out of touch" with the average Iowan by offering such a large wager. But you don't have to be a multimillionaire to make a bet like that. You just have to be sure you're right. In that case, you've got no fear of having to pay up.
Would the debates be more honest and more illuminating if there were a penalty for dissembling — if all the candidates had to put their money where their mouths are? You can bet on it.