Scarp: Watch a debate without wasting your time (really) - East Valley Tribune: Columnists

Scarp: Watch a debate without wasting your time (really)

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Mark J. Scarp is a contributing columnist for the Tribune. Reach him at

Posted: Sunday, October 14, 2012 8:12 am | Updated: 1:12 pm, Mon Oct 15, 2012.

I know the baseball playoffs are riveting (come on, admit it, even without the Diamondbacks), ASU’s football team is 5-1 and gearing up to face the No. 2 team in the nation this week (take that, Dennis Erickson) and the reality song and dance competition shows are heating up, despite the fact that Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey have become such great pals.

But if you believe, as I do, that nothing gets people talking at the water cooler like political debates — well, unlike all it takes to enjoy the dancing and singing shows is a television remote control with an on-off button — getting the most of out of seeing a debate might depend on doing a little preparation first.

This is a good time for this. Early ballots just started arriving in our mailboxes late last week, and many of us will be making our choices fairly quickly, in some cases so that, as one guy I know on Facebook said, he can happily look the other way when all the vicious commercials come on.

Remember, it’s not just the presidential and vice presidential candidates who are debating. Debates for U.S. senator, for representative in Congress and several local races are also under way. Some are on TV, including local government channels, and some are only in person, so it may be your duty to look up where they are being presented.

So here’s the armchair guide to debate-watching for the East Valley voter who wants to know (a) just what the heck they’re talking about and (b) when they will start spending more time on what they want to do instead of on how bad things will be if the other candidate does when he wants to do.

First of all, from the race for the White House down to city council, the issues are more complicated today than ever, which means that many candidates at all levels are resorting to using slogans and catch phrases as substitutes for explaining themselves. Show me a candidate who focuses too much on “gotcha” moments and I’ll show you someone who’s so afraid of insulting his base to spell things out in plain terms.

I’ve moderated congressional, legislative and city council debates over the past 13 years, and the higher up on the political ladder the position is, the more inclined the candidates are to grandstand.

On the other end of the scale, say, city council or school board, it’s often difficult to find candidates to disagree on many issues, and the hopefuls don’t grasp how important it is to set oneself apart from one’s competitors. They need to understand that they are not merely talking to people who agree with them, but some who don’t, as well as some who are not sure. These folks are not watching a debate because they have time to kill between baseball playoff games. They’re trying to come to a decision. Go out on a limb and try to reel them in.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in last year’s only recall-election debate between Russell Pearce and Jerry Lewis. As a recall, by definition it was a referendum on Pearce — should he stay or go — and the two of them spent nearly the entire debate talking about economic issues. Why Pearce’s conduct justifies his remaining in office or being tossed out of it was the one and only issue. The two avoided it. Lewis won, but not based on much that he said.

One thing I learned from moderating is that if you give candidates too much time, they’ll take it. So concerned are they that their opponent might use more time than they, they fill every second with repetitive blather.

That fewer, better chosen words stick with listeners better (ask any of those smiling folks who listened to a Sunday sermon that took only five minutes) is lost on politicians. Call it ego, but these candidates think you are hanging on their every word and can’t wait to hear more… and more… and more… even if what they’re saying keeps making less and less sense the more they keep talking.

Unfortunately, one thing they’ll never do in a presidential debate is ask a short-answer question.

And opening and closing statements say virtually nothing. Carefully scripted to play it safe while making the speaker look like a concerned, knowledgeable individual, they are usually delivered by people who are afraid to show they are concerned, knowledgeable individuals the old-fashioned way: With genuine concern and knowledge.

Come to think of it, this is also good advice if you’re posting a video introduction on a dating website.

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