Thursday, October 2, 2008

Politics: Performance, Not Expectations

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Tonight in the United States, the vice presidential nominees of the two major parties will debate in St. Louis, Missouri. Like a good Canadian resident, I'll be watching the FIVE party leaders up here instead. Why? It's less about relative interest and more about potential results. It almost doesn't matter what happens between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin. Because of lowered expectations, short of a completely disastrous, painful-to-watch performance that seems unlikely, Palin has already been perceived to have won the debate.

While the Democrats are far from blameless in the trend, the Republicans have raised the practice of lowering expectations to an art form. In 2000, Al Gore was made out to be such a stronger debater and George W. Bush made out to be such a weak debater that the objective performance during the debate became irrelevant. The same thing happened with Kerry in 2004. Bush himself actually stated at one point "I'm the master of low expectations."

For evidence that expectations are a powerful tool in human psychology, look no farther than the stock market. A company can still report profitability, but if it was less than analysts had expected, the stock will plummet. In July 2007, Google announced profits that were UP by 28%, but the stock went DOWN by more than 7% because the expectation of a 30% increase in profit had been missed. The same basic event happens to some company almost every month.

So, the poor performance by Palin in interviews with ABC's Charles Gibson and especially CBS' Katie Couric in recent weeks, while undoubtedly raising questions in voters' minds about her competence, have also served to lower the expectations for her debate performance to essentially zero. The attacks on moderator Gwen Ifill as having a financial stake in Biden winning the debate because of her upcoming book on African-American politicians (including Obama) further "pre-spin" any poor performance as being the fault of a biased moderator, instead of the candidate. Basically, there's no way for Palin to lose.

(While anyone who has ever watched Washington Week in Review in the Ifill era on PBS would have no actual concern about her ability to be impartial, the suggestion of switching moderators at the last minute to avoid the perception of bias AND inject some additional uncertainty into the debate for the candidates was an interesting one that I would have supported--and I would have suggested CBS's Lesley Stahl as the new moderator. As a 60 Minutes correspondent and former Face the Nation host, I think Stahl would make a great moderator.)

Furthermore, there seems little reason to believe that Palin will actually be a pathetic pushover during this debate. Videos on You Tube, such as this one, demonstrate that she was fiery and effective in the 2006 Alaskan governor's debates. The fact that the debate format has been modified to ban follow-up questions make it all the less likely that Palin will perform poorly, as any small weakness will not be able to be exploited strongly by Biden or the moderator.

Personally, I'm tired of expectations. Political campaigns are often compared with an extended job interview. Expectations have no place in a job interview. The candidate either makes the case that they are best person for the job or they don't. How the candidate performs during the campaign, including any debates that occur, contributes to the case they make. Their performance helps make clear their relative merit.

I find it all the more ironic that conservatives, who are opposed to affirmative action and taking into account any factor except merit in any decision, are the chief purveyors of low expectations. As in a job interview, I don't care about the gender of the candidate. I don't care about the sexual orientation of the candidate. I don't care about the race of the candidate. I don't care about the religion of the candidate. I don't care what the candidate is wearing unless it is quite distracting in some way. I don't care if the candidate has a noticeable accent--southern, Boston, or Alaskan. I don't care how the candidate is expected to perform. All I care about is that the candidate answers questions clearly, reasonably succinctly, and makes the case that they have the best qualifications and ideas so that they are the best person for the job.

Candidates should win on merit, not expectations. Keep that in mind whatever debate you choose to watch tonight.

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