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Posted at 05:10 PM ET, 09/28/2012

The debate expectations game


As long as a giant meteorite doesn’t strike the earth during the debate, we’ll consider it a success! (Bill O'Leary - THE WASHINGTON POST)

The expectations game is one of the easiest games there is.

The presidential debates are next week, and it has been quite the race to the bottom.

How low can you go?

To hear the campaigns tell it, there is no reason their candidates should be in the debates at all.

Max Read at Gawker noticed what was happening. “how is governor romney preparing for the debates? well as you know governor romney cannot do basic math nor control his bowel function,” he quipped on Twitter.

“Well,” the Obama campaign hems. “You see, Mitt Romney is a telepath who likes to create and destroy worlds with his mind, and President Obama is a protozoan incapable of human speech.”

“Well,” the Romney campaign counters. “But President Obama is Pericles, and Mitt Romney is a warthog.”

“That comment is typically misleading,” the Obama campaign retorts. “Everyone knows that President Obama still cannot breathe on land, whereas Mitt Romney is Captain America.”

“Mitt Romned has been dead for the past six years and was just recently exhumed,” the Romney campaign shouts. “Meanwhile President Obama is Abraham Lincoln’s soul in Jack Kennedy’s body.”

All this has left me slightly, counter-intuitively, excited. I have never seen two pieces of toasted cheese argue before.

Except for that one time in college about which the less said the better.

What is the benchmark for success?

“Well, if Mitt manages to breathe consistently all the way through the debate, we’ll count it as a win.”

“If the president doesn’t accidentally summon Osama bin Laden back from the dead by invoking his name too many times, we consider this a victory.”

“Actually, if Mitt only breathes a couple of times, that would be fine too.”

“Really, the only thing that matters is that the president does not accidentally divorce Michelle in the course of the debate.”

Lowering expectations is a tricky art. At what point do you no longer want what they’re selling?

“I’m bringing my new boyfriend home to dinner,” you tell your parents. “Don’t worry, he has gotten much, much better at controlling his trademark bladder explosions.”

Your mother sighs. “You know, if you want us to buy you a cat, just say the word.”

“It is possible that someone will leap off the stage and gouge your eyes out in the course of ‘Ghost: The Musical.’ ”

“You know what?” you say, “I think I’ll pass.”

Better than Expected and Good Enough are two quite different things.

Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations. “If he doesn’t bump into anything, I’ll consider it a triumph.”

You run yourself down in advance so others won’t have to. You set the bar so low you practically trip over it. You tell everyone that the vault being attempted is worth one point so that it comes as a shock when it’s a fifteen.

But after a point, this stops working. We know that both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are competent, if not inspired, debaters. We know that they both think the debates matter and have been working hard to prepare. But instead we keep being urged to think that it will be a remarkable achievement if no one falls over.

The goal of all this is to make an average performance seem impressive. But it’s excessive. I like a pleasant surprise as much as the next person. I like to be proven wrong, favorably startled, shown the error of my initial assessments. But if this is what it takes for us to be pleasantly surprised, I’d just as soon set myself up for disappointment.

The trouble with this game is the same as the trouble with all the negative ads. The net effect is to make you expect less and less until you decide to forget it and watch “The X Factor” instead. You notice that no one on “The X Factor” introduces her performance by saying, “Hey, I’m about to underwhelm you.” Maybe we could learn a thing or two.

By  |  05:10 PM ET, 09/28/2012

 
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