Not-so-great expectations

Posted Oct. 03, 2008, at 8:41 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:24 a.m.

It was George W. Bush, oddly, who sold the idea of “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” He was talking about education and assumptions about the abilities of the disadvantaged. But the phrase now offers the only possible explanation for the scores of pundits who declared that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin won Thursday’s vice presidential debate.

“She killed,” Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan proclaimed of Republican John McCain’s running mate.

“This debate was about Sarah Palin,” wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks, who has been critical of the first-term Alaska governor. “She held up her end of an energetic debate that gave voters a direct look at two competing philosophies. She established debating parity with Joe Biden.”

Such glowing conclusions are only possible because of the extremely low expectations for Gov. Palin.

Because of her bumbling interviews with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric in recent weeks, all Gov. Palin had to do Thursday night was improve upon those performances to be declared a winner.

Joe Biden, Democrat Barack Obama’s vice presidential pick and a longtime senator who is prone to windy answers and sometimes has a faulty recollection of history, had the tougher task of not appearing condescending or bullying. He did this and more.

The extremely low bar for Gov. Palin is the soft bigotry of low expectations, wrapped in sexism. Male candidates who used their state’s proximity to Russia as an example of foreign policy experience or who criticize the Supreme Court for being activist but couldn’t cite a ruling they disagreed with wouldn’t be taken seriously.

Fortunately, the public appears to be more sophisticated judges than the pundits. Many of the tens of millions who watched the debate appreciate Gov. Palin’s folksy appeal and her freshness. They gave her credit for exceeding expectations. But her shallow grasp of policy and reliance on a few stock ideas and phrases is still troubling.

In a CNN poll, 51 percent say Sen. Biden won the debate, although respondents gave the edge to Gov. Palin for likability. More important, 87 percent say Sen. Biden is qualified for job, while only 42 percent say Gov. Palin is.

No matter how down-home and populist, the public still expects substance — a familiarity and fluency with the issues of the day and convincing ways to solve them — from vice presidential and presidential candidates.

“Palin could not match Biden when it came to policy detail, but she never obviously floundered,” the gushing David Brooks conceded.

Turns out, policy detail does matter and not floundering is not enough when considering whether someone is qualified to be second in command of the United States.

Move the bar back up a couple notches.

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