After the first presidential debate of 2012, liberal America plunged itself into an existential crisis.
President Barack Obama had held a steady and significant lead in the polls for the entirety of the election, and had intended to use the debate as a platform for defending his first term and warning the country about the consequences of electing an austerity-minded plutocrat in his place. Mitt Romney had other ideas. Abandoning the tax-cutting and safety-net-slashing rhetoric that had gotten him this far, Romney spoke empathically about the poor and unemployed, and cavalierly disclaimed the agenda Obama had correctly attributed to him.
Obama was stunned. “Well, for 18 months he’s been running on this tax plan,” he complained. “And now, five weeks before the election, he’s saying that his big, bold idea is ‘never mind.’”
The wide and immediate consensus was that Obama had performed very poorly, and created the worst possible contrast to Romney, who confronted the president with confidence and poise.
“There’s suffering in this country,” Romney said of people out of work, as Obama turned his head down to his notes.
Not only had Obama performed poorly against Romney in real life, he had also lost the famed battle for elite opinion in which political commentators set arbitrary expectations for the individual contestants and then measure the contestants’ performances relative to those bars, rather than relative to one another. Thus the consensus that Obama, the charismatic leader of the free world, had crumpled under pressure. Romney, stiff and square by reputation, had commanded the room. Obama’s failure was thus compounded.
The writer Andrew Sullivan, an avid Obama supporter, captured the zeitgeist in a blog post titled “Did Obama just throw the entire election away?”
Public opinion polls in the coming days reflected the gloomy liberal mindset. The president’s healthy lead disappeared. Some surveys suggested Romney had taken it from him and run with it. Republicans were thrilled. They had “momentum.”
But at Obama HQ, the numbers looked much different. Internal campaign polls, which are based on models of the expected electorate, rather than voter screens and response rates, showed the race basically unchanged. Disaffected Republicans had moved back into Romney’s camp, but the overall dynamic of the race was the same as it had always been: Obama had a modest but healthy lead that was likely to hold through election day.
The moral of this story is that even a reasonable assessment of a presidential debate, shaped by the ways candidates deployed charms, critiques, and command of information at each other, can wildly distort a viewer or commentator’s sense of its consequences on the underlying campaign. An assessment of a debate distorted by the expectations game can be more misleading still. It is a useless exercise even in a typical contest between a seasoned Republican and seasoned Democrat. But this year the expectations game is far more insidious than usual.
In normal years, these wholly subjective standards serve to handicap superficial traits, like showmanship and charisma, that have little bearing on the brass tacks of public service. It was shallow but harmless to reward Romney for being more engaging than usual at the first debate four years ago, because at bottom his awkward manner wouldn’t have been an impediment to running the country effectively. This year, to evaluate one of the candidates relative to his typical mannerisms, rather than on the basis of his objective performance, could easily entail mischaracterizing not just his superficial traits but his actual level of preparedness for being the most powerful person in the world.
Because Hillary Clinton is a seasoned debater, and a master of specificity, it is widely suspected that she will be held to a high standard Monday night at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Donald Trump, by contrast, is a rude and bullying debater who rambles and lacks even the most basic grasp of federal policy. As when he managed not to lose composure in his meeting with the Mexican president, debate pundits will hold him to a subterranean standard on Monday evening. Clinton is supposed to make easy work of Trump, and if she doesn’t she’ll be punished for it.
“Trump can win by clearing a bar of acceptability,” explained Rich Lowry, the anti-Trump editor of the conservative National Review, “whereas Clinton has to do more than that and either significantly wound Trump or make a compellingly positive case for herself that has so far eluded her in both 2008 and 2016.”
In truth, as the 2012 example indicates, the stakes are probably far lower than they seem, and the bar Clinton must clear not to damage herself is nowhere near as high as the political press will set it.
She will enter the debate with a lead in the polls, and if she puts on an ordinary, competent performance she’ll leave with one, almost no matter how the actual clash between her and Trump is spun.
The problem with setting expectations this year is that the Trump campaign wants to game them not to get credulous praise for his debating skill, but to trick the media into glossing over his manifest unfitness for public office. In priming the expectations pump, Trump’s aides are portraying him as a restless, fidgeting, abusive, impulsive, rambling, inattentive, unteachable pupil.
“He has paid only cursory attention to briefing materials,” the New York Times reported. “He has refused to use lecterns in mock debate sessions despite the urging of his advisers. He prefers spitballing ideas with his team rather than honing them into crisp, two-minute answers.”
Thus, if he manages to stand still, speak sentences, and not raise his voice, he will have exceeded expectations and supposedly improved his lot.
This standard of analysis has two extraordinary flaws.
1. Being able to act like a polite child at the grownup’s table for 90 minutes in no way qualifies a person to be entrusted with war-making power. If he is relatively poised but lies repeatedly and demonstrates complete ignorance of public affairs, we need that to be communicated to news consumers, because that is an urgently important story.
2. The portrait aides have drawn of Trump in his supposedly disastrous debate prep sessions is the actual Trump we’ve all seen parading across the public stage for over a year now. This is a more important basic truth than whether he can compose himself for a passing moment in the limelight.
Trump has already been normalized to a frightening degree. Simply becoming the Republican nominee and campaigning for the presidency on a major party ticket did that for him, while obliging him in no way to adjust to democratic norms. Under no circumstances should political analysts let themselves be tricked into completing the makeover for him.