Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Gutter: The debate in one overwrought sentence

It’s been two days since the debate with Luke Raventsahl, Patrick Dowd, and Carmen Robinson, and I still think the Mayor “won” the night, based largely on the old adage of “it’s not what you say but how you say it.” The Mayor’s points were largely based on half-truths and misleading statements, but for the city’s residents who were looking to the debates for guidance on which candidate presents the best options for Pittsburgh’s future, the young mayor was pretty convincing.

That is to say, if you didn’t know that much of what he was saying was illegitimate, you’d probably think he was a pretty good candidate. And since I suspect that a fair majority of the Pittsburgh voting public might not have seen through the Mayor’s crap, then John Q. Pittsburgh’s lasting impression from the debate will probably be something along the lines of “He’s got us heading in the right direction.”

Which is disappointing. Despite the fact that Dowd and Robinson both made relevant points throughout the debate, the Mayor came out looking the best due to an impressive display of politicking.

Dowd and Robinson each needs to focus more on relating to the viewer in that kind of forum and understanding how to best convey his or her points.

One specific instance stuck out. WTAE reporter Bob Mayo asked the candidates about the perceived atmosphere of so-called “pay to play” politics in Pittsburgh city government and whether each candidate felt that the perception was pervasive.

Dowd went first. Without an official transcript, here is my recollection of his response to the question:

“In this culture that we live in, given the administration we have, it’s easy to see that.”

I apologize if I didn’t get the exact wording - I typed as fast as I could during the debate - but you get the gist of it: verbose and over-spoken. To this point the debate, Dowd had been constantly on the offensive, going after the Mayor at every turn (even when it wasn’t appropriate or timely). And yet, when the question of pay-to-play came up, he dropped into some wordy near-hypothetical.

So I ask: why pull your punches? Or worse, why drape your punches in qualifiers and clauses? Hit him with a strong right and say what you feel:

“Yes, there are pay-to-play politics in this administration. There are too many dots to connect to feel otherwise.”

Now, Dowd did follow up his statement with some good talk about wanting “a government we can be proud of” and needing “strict measures” to be “in place for a long haul,” and he also reiterated his favorite talking point: transparency.

And I can get on board with all of that. But why cloud it up with a slow-to-get-rolling multi-clause statement about “in this culture we live in” and “given the administration we have?” Go for the jugular. Don’t let there be any doubt; I don’t think Dowd has any doubt about the existence of pay-to-play, and I don’t think he wants the public to have any doubt. But when you say what he said the way he said it, the forming of the sentence lends itself stylistically to creating doubt.

I’d be remiss to not mention that Robinson followed up Dowd’s response with one of the better points of the night, essentially talking about how perception is king at this point. But maybe I’ll work on a separate post about that.

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