Great expectations are often difficult to live up to. But a different adage better describes what happened in the first presidential debate and its immediate aftermath (during which the Bush lead disappeared):
Low expectations are often impossible to live down to.
For several days before the debate, we watched as the familiar the great expectations game was rolled out. Each side was trying to convince voters that their man was a long-shot underdog. The Bush team went so far as to describe Kerry as the best debater since Cicero. They figured that if they set the bar high enough (and the President’s bar so low no one could possibly limbo their way beneath it) then Kerry would surely fail to live up to those lofty expectations.
Conventional wisdom tells us that this is the way to play the pre-debate game. And it might have worked for the Bush team had it not been for two key factors. One, Bush was way off his (relatively mediocre) game on Thursday night. Two, long before the Bush campaign spent a few brief days telling us how well-spoken Kerry could be in a debate setting, they had already spent months debasing his character, re-inventing his record, and dragging his good name (and even his most laudable qualities) through a pile of mud that was thick and malodorous even by political standards.
From the beginning of this campaign, the Bush strategy has been to recreate Kerry as a wimp, a person to be ridiculed, a weakling who would not protect us, a heathen who would ban our bible and pillage our bank accounts, and one who is not fit for office. Cheney likes to call him a wannabe. Nothing was sacred.
And after months of this nonsense they thought they could pump up expectations about Kerry in a few days.
This Bush strategy of character assassination went overboard a long time ago and it finally backfired on Thursday night. It cost the Bushies the debate, their built-up lead, and quite possibly the election.
Casual political observers expected nothing out of Kerry on Thursday night. And from Bush they expected the gallant, brave leader of men that the President’s speech writers and campaign operatives had carefully manufactured out of words, ads, and hand-picked crowds along the campaign trail.
By the time Thursday night came around, viewers were sitting down to watch what would turn out to become not just a Kerry win, but a classic David vs Goliath match-up. Except in this case, Goliath seemed out of sorts, and instead of a single stone, David seemed to have an entire bunker-busting nuclear arsenal being shot from his sling.
The Bush team hoped to win this election by erasing the real John Kerry and creating a weak and wilting flip-flopper. Instead they created a monster. And now they will try to regain lost ground by attacking Kerry’s character yet again.
Only this time, who will believe them?