Politicians: Masters of not-so-great expectations

The game changes and gaffes may grow wan and wane, but the lowered expectations, those will be with us until the end of time. When a company is facing low profits, they lower expectations to match.


Republican David Jolly smiles in St. Petersburg, Fla., after defeating Democrat Alex Sink in an election to the U.S. House, to replace 42-year Republican Rep. CW Bill Young, who died in October of cancer. (AP Photo/The Tampa Bay Times, Chris Zuppa)

When politicians don't think they're likely to complete their agenda, they lower expectations. But lowered expectations are perhaps the most exasperating during election season, when candidates worried about their chances start publicly sharing the fact that they might just be the underdoggiest of candidates in history, in the hopes that it will make their eventual win into an even more beautiful made-for TV movie.

We are currently at the peak moment for prime expectation-lowering this election cycle -- the first primary has come and gone, and most primaries happen in a big bunch in May. And both parties are frantically trying to lower, lower, lower expectations in the aftermath of the congressional special election in Florida.

Debbie Wasserman-Schulz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, said that Alex Sink should have lost by way more than 2 percent, so in a way, they did win in Florida. Republican strategist Karl Rove wrote in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal yesterday that his party should keep the champagne corked. And so they will continue, until at least December, when they will start planting doubts about 2016.

Every politician wants to be Seabiscuit, but a review of mentions of "lowering expectations" in political coverage shows that reporters, one of the chief arbiters of expectations, have been fooled by such spinning for a long time. As the Associated Press article on the Florida race noted, "Even before the defeat, party officials had been lowering expectations."

Warning politicians: You have bad poker faces by design. Laws demand that you reveal most of your cards to us, so you may as well be realistic with your electoral chances. We will call your bluff:

April 29, 1979: "Carter's advisers have come up with a strategy for dealing with the phenomenon of New Hampshire that is right out of the pop philosophy of Jerry Brown. It is the politics of lowering expectations. 'We have got to deal with the fact that we might not win in New Hampshire,' said one of the president's advisers in Washington. 'It is possible that the write-in for Kennedy or the vote for Brown could do very well ... So our message has to be of limited expectations. Carter might not do as well as you might expect of an incumbent.'"

June 19, 1988: "It may be a measure of our political maturity that we no longer expect heroism in our political leaders, a lowering of expectations that has produced candidates like George Bush and Michael Dukakis. Or it may be that the demands we place on those who are supposed to inspire us have grown so outlandish that no human can meet them, leaving those who try looking like midgets."

January 19, 1990: "Despite the lofty poll numbers, the most optimistic and partisan of Republicans are lowering expectations for Election Day, Nov. 6. 'I think you might see a swing of six to 10 House seats and two or three in the Senate,' said Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the House minority whip."

May 22, 1991: "Earlier this month, the second-term senator abruptly announced that he was seriously considering a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. This week, he was testing the waters in New Hampshire, site of the first Presidential primary, introducing himself to the Cindy Leuschners of the world and submitting, almost innocently, to the strange folkways of presidential campaigns. His message was the need for health-care reform, his hook was the Rockefeller name, and his style was very much that of a presidential novice. 'I'm basically three weeks old,' he told reporter after reporter, in a wise attempt at lowering expectations."

February 25, 1992: "In by-election campaigns, parties often play a game called "lowering expectations". The object is to shift the conventional wisdom about the likely result in favour of your opponent. Then, when you do better than "expected", you receive a big psychological boost, your opponents are demoralised and you storm into office at the next election. Some by-elections achieve legendary status, such as Bass in 1975, where the 15 per cent swing against Labor was the precursor of the annihilation of the Whitlam Government at the end of the year."

October 13, 1992: "Among the rituals of the U.S. presidential election system, none is more transparent than the spin put on the interpretation of a debate among the candidates. The ongoing campaign game of lowering expectations, running down the opposition and reinterpreting inconvenient facts - in a word, spin - is taken to new heights when the U.S. political world gathers for the debate."

March 10, 1996: "'I'm a doer, not a talker,' he says, at once lowering expectations but also signaling one line of attack against Mr. Clinton."

September 9, 2000: "Mrs. Clinton, after touring an elementary school in Brooklyn, engaged in the time-tested strategy of lowering expectations about how she might do. 'My opponent has debated a lot and he's been on the floor of the House debating, so you know obviously I've never done it before,' she said. 'I'm trying to get prepared but it's a totally new experience for me.'"

June 8, 2003: "By the time he began his presidential run in June 1999, Bush's first act as a candidate was an exercise in lowering expectations -- playing down his lead in the polls, in fundraising and in endorsements. He dubbed his campaign plane 'Great Expectations' and told reporters on the inaugural flight: 'Please store your expectations securely in your overhead bins, as they may shift during the trip and may fall and hurt someone -- especially me.'"

September 14, 2006: "Smart politicians -- I met a bunch like that who, like, are really good at lowering expectations. George Pataki is another one. They benefit in the end where you like -- Hillary Clinton to some extent was like that, because people meet her and they think, oh, she's going to be like this sort of like stormy caricature of herself from 1992. And she`s not. That`s why she did so well in upstate New York."

February 7, 2012: "Mitt Romney’s campaign, which has been quietly lowering expectations and bracing for at least one loss on Tuesday when voters in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri head to the polls, made its reservations public Tuesday morning when it released a memo pointing out that no delegates are at stake in the coming primaries and caucuses."

Please note that lowering expectations was never the best strategy for the majority of these candidates. It's a risky move that hardly ever pays off, so why not just have normal expectations with the possibility of an appropriately-feted victory?

Also note that journalists are often at fault in using the phrase "lowering expectations." It would probably not be a bad idea to add the phrase to the Washington Post's list of most reprehensible journalistic cliches.

So let's all decide, together, to make the 2014 election cycle as cliche-free as possible. "Lowering expectations" -- and no, I am not saying that we should lower expectations about this being a cliche-free midterm, as daunting as the prospect might seem -- seems as good a place to start as any.

Must-reads:

"Senate reaches bipartisan deal on unemployment benefits extension" -- Paul Kane, The Washington Post

"Chronicler of Presidents Is Bringing Four Together" -- Alana Rocha, The New York Times

"Holder Endorses Proposal to Reduce Drug Sentences" -- Matt Apuzzo, The New York Times

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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