October 3 was the night of the first Bush-Gore debate. Gore entered the debate with a tiny lead in the polls (48% to 46%). He was a sitting Vice-President, the country was at peace, and the economy seemed strong (though in, fact, the recession had already begun). Polls done immediately after the debate suggested that Gore had, barely, won the debate.
So why did I think Bush had just won the election? Because he was the beneficiary of low expectations.
As I’ve written before, our reaction to many things - movies, books, restaurants, vacations – is decided largely by our expectations. We all know that feeling from movies – the anticipated blockbuster that fizzles, or the small movie that takes you by surprise. We're less aware of it when it happens in sports, but it's just as strong: Alex Rodriguez gets booed while David Wright, not playing nearly as well, is cheered. It’s all about expectations.
This is true of Presidential candidates, too. Most Americans don’t follow politics very closely. They pick up snippets from Leno and Letterman, hear a celebrity make a crack to Matt Lauer, listen to Jon Stewart’s monologue and interviews.
And if, in the fall of 2000, if you were one of those people who hadn’t really tuned in to the election yet, Jay and Dave and Jon and everyone else had led you to believe that George Bush was just about the stupidest human who ever walked the face of the earth. This man couldn’t tie his shoelaces. He couldn’t feed himself. He may have degrees from Harvard and Yale, but this was only because of family connections; he should have gone to the Rocco Globbo School for the Galactically Stupid.
Huge numbers of Americans then tune in to that first debate – 75 million on the night of October 3. And something amazing happened in that debate…George Bush did not drool on himself. He did not perform magnificently, or even particularly well. But he did fine, and more or less held his own. Al Gore, the great intellectual, was supposed to wipe the floor with George Bush, the class dunce. And he failed.
George Bush was the beneficiary of low expectations.
What does this have to do with Barack Obama?
Does Barack Obama have low expectations? Er, no. He is a knight in shining armor, the great orator of his day, the man who will ride in on a white horse and single-handedly save America from its enemies within and without. He is John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, with a dash of Abe Lincoln and a teaspoon of Bono.
I’m exaggerating a little, but not much. The late-night comics are reluctant to go after him. The Clintons got hammered for playing hardball last week. And if Jon Stewart had a writing staff, they would know damn well that their audience adores this guy.
But one has to ask…is he being set up for a fall? I think so. A line in a Times article just before the New Hampshire primary caught my eye:
Political pied pipers often prove ephemeral. Mr. Obama’s support among a focus group at Dartmouth sagged noticeably after students watched him debate more veteran Democrats.
Dartmouth students fit the Obama demographic perfectly. They are young. They are educated. They are affluent. They are extremely excited about Barack Obama. But when they actually saw him go toe-to-toe with “veteran Democrats”, he didn’t live up to the absurdly lofty expectations they had for him.
It’s the opposite of George Bush. At some point, perhaps against Hillary, perhaps against McCain, there will be an Obama letdown. Will it stop him from reaching the White House? I think so.
His first try, anyway.