Small Expectations

By now, everyone agrees that the presidential debates, as well as just about everything else about the race for the White House and other high-profile political contests, are a matter of expectations. A candidate does well, or “wins,” if he or she meets or exceeds expectations; they lose if they fail to live up to what the world expects. In 2000, Bush triumphed in his public meetings with Gore because the world — the media, especially — badly “misunderestimated” him. He didn’t fall down or throw up or start barking while the camera was on him. He thus exceeded expectations. He won.

A key tactic in the contest of expectations is to put a damper on what people might hope for in a debate or campaign. “Our candidate — hell, we’ve tried to stop him from humping the other guy’s leg, but we just can’t get him to quit.” So when the candidate somehow makes it through the televised debate without exhibiting the previously advertised weakness for leg humping, it’s a triumph of character. Expectations: Exceeded! Debate: Won!

None of this is news and maybe it’s not even worth saying anymore. But the really troubling thing is the way we all come to buy into it and accept it. Reading some of the blog coverage of the Alan Keyes-Barack Obama coverage the other night (such as on Archpundit, expectations were a major theme (Keyes scored points by dropping his usual combative, hyper-righteous stance on everything while on the air). I’ve found myself doing it, trying to guess how the Cheney-Edwards debate would be viewed.

I was discussing this (online) with my brother John last night. The game is troubling because the process of diminishing expectations plays to people’s most cynical (or at least disappointed, resigned) feelings about the way the world works. “You know, they say this thing is supposed to get 25 miles to the gallon. Figures that it gets just 16.” So even people who. like me, feel it’s desperately important to try to steer the country in a different direction from the one Bush and company are headed, start looking at Kerry with low expectations, just hoping they’ll hear something, anything, to make them feel good about their vote.

Bottom line, I guess I say, ‘Screw that.’ Refuse to play the game. If we don’t demand the best from the people we’re giving our votes to, we’re not going to get it. It’s healthy to want more from the people leading us and to be disappointed when you don’t get it. But don’t expect less. Expect more and make noise about it.

So that’s my well-meaning screedlet for today.

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