There was a time, not long ago, when I would have argued that much of what ails our politics could be made better by forcing candidates into a lot more debates. But that was before a new era of Fox News Republicans, soon led by the creeptacular Donald Trump, proved that there are not actually any penalties for standing up on a debate stage and sucking horrifically—whether by lying through your teeth, not knowing the basics about the subjects you are being asked about, or abandoning debate premises entirely to brag about implied penis size.
Yeah, you can't really say there are repercussions for being exposed as a boorish and perpetually dishonest know-nothing these days, not with the Republican base eating such behavior up and asking for more. The longstanding debate danger of getting caught in a gaffe of ignorance or temperament is no longer something to be feared. Trump came very close to dropping his pants and dragging his behind around debate stages like a dog in heat—and still had Republican media hires on all the networks who would quickly shake off their dead-eyed stares to come up with reasons The Common Man ought to eat these antics up with a spoon; in an era when conservative candidates can flat-out punch reporters and be treated as heroes for it, there's no longer anything that counts as a "gaffe."
Whether our faith in debates as a democratic tool was misplaced or not, however, Republican candidates are still deciding that they don't want anything to do with them. And yes, the candidates most eager to dodge debates are still those who either have things on their records they have no intention of talking about, or whose candidacies are so flimsily premised as to make it potentially embarrassing to argue their cases out loud.
In a story on new Republican debate reluctance, Politico names some pretty obvious candidates. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott looks like he'll be ducking debates with Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke, and why the hell wouldn't he? Abbott has overseen the collapse and near-destruction of his state's power distribution, is causing widespread chaos and damage to the state's national guard with an ongoing attempt to faux-militarize the southern border, and oversaw the theocratic criminalization of abortion in his state. Abbott has nothing to say to an audience comprising anything but the most rigid conservatives, and no means of moderating his far-right one-upmanship.
Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker has been dodging debates, and given Walker's current campaigning there's no mystery there, either. A political novice, Walker's entire campaign is based around a general premise of "I am a famous person.” While other famous names have successfully made the jump to politics, Walker has been shaky in his attempts to claim he knows what the hell he is doing, on any given subject, even as he flees from myriad questions about his personal and professional past. These include questions like, "Why did you point a gun at your then-wife's head and threaten to kill her?" and "Why did you keep threatening to kill her for years after that?"
Granted, that's not the sort of behavior that the modern conservative movement finds disqualifying—but it's also one that Walker does not want to talk about in front of a bipartisan audience with a camera in his face.
And then there's "Doctor" Oz, the man who has made such a lucrative television career out of his medical license that he considers "Doctor" to be his given birth name. Dr. Mehmet Oz is very famous for monetizing the promotion of dodgy cures—so much so that he got himself hauled in front of a Senate health committee to explain himself, and it didn't go very well.
Oz is now looking to protect his "miracle" diet pill empire the old-fashioned way; he's running for Senate so that he can be put on the committee that previously attacked him for selling snake oil, where he will make sure no laws get written that would criminalize the faux-medical sales pitches that fatten his wallet. But that's a very grifty and crooked reason to run for office, even here in America, where it seems like half the Senate is playing the markets while exchanging new pollution cut-outs for political donations. This racket is no more expensive to the bribers than buying a decent used car, and there is a real threat of Oz's campaign going down in humiliating flames if he goes up against any opponent willing to pop a videotape of Oz's Senate grilling into a VCR and invite a statewide television audience to have a watch.
So none of this is exactly new, and with Republicanism now utilizing lines directly from fascism—telling their base that the free press are "enemies," and that whatever flubs or lies their candidates are caught in are actually a conspiracy by “globalists” and “elites” to make Republicans look bad—there's even less damage done by taking the coward's way out and refusing to publicly state your positions at all.
Again, one of the past uses of debates was to allow candidates to moderate their positions after saying absolutely wacky things to their own absolutely wacky base. If you were a Mitt Romney or a George W. Bush, say, you would use the opportunity to mumble something noncommittal about the very alarming things you were previously filmed saying to a much more hardline primary audience, and attempt to convince the viewing public that you at least have the wherewithal to know that those are controversial positions that people don't like hearing out loud.
Now? Let 'er rip. There are no moderates to convince, and there are far too many smartphones in far too many places to get away with claims that you didn't mean to say the crackpot crazy things. You only banned abortions in your state accidentally, for example; purely by coincidence. Republicanism now focuses on the most hardline members of its base, and if those numbers aren't enough to win elections then the party will claim that the election they lost was "stolen" and therefore invalid.
With the help of Fox News propaganda, it's now easier to sell a lie that an election was stolen than it is to sell a generic appeal to moderates, so Republicans are increasingly abandoning those appeals. There's no longer any penalty for lying at debates, or for bragging that your genitals are surely bigger than those of the other Republicans you are running against. But there's no upside in telling the truth, either. Or saying anything at all. Or even showing up.