Left photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post, right photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

The first presidential debate is Monday night, and in preparation I have a warning: Lots of people are going to try to convince you, both before the debate and immediately after, how you should understand what happened when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton finally shared the same stage.

Most of what you hear before and after is going to be a twisted version of reality presented as an objective, savvy assessment, offered up so you can consider yourself one of the clever insiders who has a keen grasp of how the whole thing played with the rubes. Don’t buy into it.

The first and perhaps most important element of this distorted picture is that holy concept of “expectations.” Many liberals are concerned that lowered expectations for Donald Trump will lead the media to declare him the winner. They worry about this kind of conventional wisdom, from the Associated Press:

“By virtue of her long political resume, Hillary Clinton will enter her highly anticipated fall debates with Donald Trump facing the same kind of heightened expectations that often saddle an incumbent president. Trump, as the political newcomer, will be more of a wild card with a lower bar to clear.”

Or as the sage Mark Halperin puts it, “Winning has less to do with pure performance, it’s almost all about beating expectations.”

It’s important that we pause for a moment to acknowledge how ludicrous this idea is. If someone who was expected to come in last in an Olympic race actually comes in fifth, we don’t give him the gold medal and put a huge picture of him on the front page because he exceeded expectations. We might note his performance, but he still lost. The truth is that if one candidate exceeded expectations, the only thing it really means is that the expectations were wrong. In other words, the people doing the expecting didn’t understand the situation adequately. Yet we talk about it as though the candidate who exceeded expectations has somehow proven themselves to be more capable of being president than the candidate who merely met expectations. What’s more, as this blog has previously noted, it’s often the reporters themselves who have determined what these expectations “should” be.

Some reporters might protest that the campaigns and the candidates do work to lower expectations for themselves and raise them for their opponents. It’s certainly true that the campaigns play this game, often to preposterous degrees (for instance, in 2004 George W. Bush adviser Matthew Dowd called John Kerry “the best debater since Cicero”). But they only do it because they know that reporters are talking about expectations, and if they can convince those reporters that their candidate exceeded expectations, that will mean a wave of positive coverage talking about how smart and commanding he seemed. If reporters didn’t care about expectations, the campaigns would stop trying to shape them. 

But there’s a problem with my analogy of the Olympic race, too: The presidential debates don’t have to have a winner and a loser. The election will have a winner and a loser, but the debates are supposed to be a means to get greater insight into the candidates and help voters make their decisions. You can have a terrific debate — lively, enlightening, revealing — in which nobody actually wins or loses. Yet a huge amount of time will be spent talking about whether Trump or Clinton “won” — pundits will opine on the question, polls will be taken on it, and throughout almost no one will ask why it matters.

Finally, we should be especially wary of those decisive moments that everyone is always on the lookout for, that zinger of a pre-planned line or witty comeback that will be replayed and quoted again and again. Most of the time, the moments that are elevated in that way are the ones that reinforce the conclusions we’ve already made about the candidates. Think back on the ones you remember from the past: Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle “You’re no Jack Kennedy” in 1988, or George H.W. Bush struggling to answer an audience member’s question about how the national debt had affected him personally in 1992, or even all the way back to Richard Nixon looking sweaty in 1960. In every case, they enabled reporters to retell the story they had already been telling about who the candidates were.

I’m not sure what that will be this year — it might have something to do with Clinton trying to show she’s “likeable,” or Trump telling some outrageous lie. The point is not that those moments can’t say something important, but they shouldn’t be the only thing we take away from the debate. And that’s what they wind up being if we repeat them often enough.

I’m not trying to pretend that a debate isn’t a fundamentally artificial performance. But as observers, we should do what we can to cut through the performative aspects and figure out what actually mattered. And as we do so, it’s good to remember that debating has nothing to do with what a president actually does. In a debate, candidates can reveal qualities they’ll be using as president — like knowledge, thoughtfulness, insight — but a president doesn’t actually have to debate anyone, so in the end it doesn’t really matter which one is better at debating.

To sum up: “expectations” are meaningless, nobody actually has to win or lose, don’t think that one moment is all that mattered, and perhaps most importantly, try not to forget that the point of the whole thing is that one of these two people will be the next president. No matter how silly the debate or the post-debate coverage gets, if we keep that in mind we’ll be alright.