Election 2004

Fair Expectations

It's time to end the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that President Bush is afforded in presidential debates.
George W. is right – it's time to end "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

I'm talking about the presidential debates. It's long past time to quit treating George W. like some precious little elementary school kid from the boondocks. He's supposed to be the president. He needs to be held to the same debate standards to which other first-term presidents were held, the standards that helped derail his father and Jimmy Carter.

Standards like truth. Coherence. His actual record in office. An ability to go beyond scripted sound bites. Some connection between the dreamscapes that his PR people paint for him, and the cruel reality on the ground that his policies have helped to create.

(As for Dick Cheney – some tenuous connection with the truth would be a good start . . .) The media have never held George W. Bush to the same standards as his debate opponents. Despite being the incumbent governor, the eloquent Ann Richards could only win by slaughtering Bush in their debates, a wildly unfair set of expectations. Al Gore actually won two out of the three debates, according to the viewing audience – but he lost ground during their debate series, as much as 10 points in the polls, because he was unable to "knock Bush out" (and because of intense post-debate right-wing spin).

Why? Because in the past, Bush's reputation for mangling phrases, for making up words, for not knowing what he was talking about, was an asset when the media judged the debates. He "won", not because he did better than his opponents, but because he did "better than expected," according to the pundit class.

George W. has always only had to "exceed expectations", which are always set low to begin with. He has never actually had to "win" a debate; he wins by not losing, or in some cases, even by not losing badly.

This media frame is long outdated. Bush is the president now (whether he really won or not). When he says something, it should be judged by real, factual benchmarks, not artificially enhanced by "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

For instance, can the man who would be Churchill tell the truth? Can he explain how an attack on a nation with no WMDs that was not involved in the 9/11 attacks somehow boosted the war on terror? Can he tell us how we're going to get out of his quagmire in Iraq? Should he be allowed to get away with reciting some truism about "turning the corner" rather than confronting our net loss of a million jobs, stagnant wages, and growing trade deficit?

Will his promises on the budget deficit be measured against his record in squandering the Clinton surplus? Will his tough-guy talk about terrorists be matched up against his failure to follow through on bin Laden? Will the media ask him if he believes that Armageddon will happen soon, and is that belief influencing his Middle East policy?

Will they ask him how it is that his Administration could be warned in early August that al Qaeda was going to attack inside the United States, and yet more than a month later, still not be able to defend the Pentagon? What could explain such a massive display of incompetence?

And what does it mean that he can find the time to drop in on soldiers and National Guard reserves being sent off to Iraq, but he has never been able to find the time to show respect for our fallen, to show respect for their families, by attending even one funeral of one soldier killed in Iraq? Not one, out of more than one thousand killed.

Everyone seems to agree that this is the most important election in our lifetimes. (Granted, people say that every four years, but this time both sides are also acting as if they mean it.) Is it too much to ask that the next leader of the most powerful nation on earth have to earn it, by actually winning the debates, rather than winning by "social promotion" due to "the soft bigotry of low expectations"?

So this time, can we make George W. actually win these debates on his merits – or more likely, allow him to lose them on his demerits?

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