Friday, October 15, 2010


Kevin Drum sighs despairingly in response to the Harry Reid/Sharron Angle debate:

..."Angle repeatedly found herself in verbal cul-de-sacs which she only escaped by returning to well-rehearsed talking points," said Politico's Jonathan Martin, "all the while blurring over some of her controversial statements or ignoring questions about them altogether." And the Las Vegas Sun's Jon Ralston more or less agreed: "Angle won because she looked relatively credible, appearing not to be the Wicked Witch of the West."

So I guess that's where we are. Freakish candidates are now held to such low standards that all they have to do is surprise us by not sounding like they belong in a locked mental ward. Welcome to 2010.

No, welcome to 1980, and 1984, and 2000. How different is this, really, from the time of the Reagan/Carter debates, when the Gipper's task was to seem not stupid and not crazy? Or 1984, when, after some apparent brain freezes in the first debate that -- understandably in retrospect -- led to questions about his mental fitness to serve, Reagan came back with a breezy performance in debate #2 against Walter Mondale and went on to win in a landslide? Paul Slansky, in his book on the Reagan era, The Clothes Have No Emperor, described that debate performance this way:

At the second Reagan/Mondale debate in Kansas City, the President successfully delivers an obviously rehearsed one-liner -- "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience" -- and thereby puts an end to fears about his recently displayed senility.

So determined are voters to ignore his flaws that not even his observation that Armageddon could come "the day after tomorrow" (a comment that prompts Nancy to gasp, "Oh, no!") or his almost incoherent closing statement (something about a time capsule and a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway) can dissuade them.

And in 2000 we were back to 1980, with a presidential candidate who seemed unserious and uninformed, which somehow dropped the debate bar so low he was able to clear it with ease.

I don't know why some Republican candidates are given endless gentleman's C's this way and others (Christine O'Donnell, probably Carl Paladino) aren't. Clearly, unslickness works for a lot of members of the GOP. It helps to have an opponent who's been stereotyped as wonkish and/or prissy and/or nerdy and/or the person who's sending the country to hell in a handbasket. I also think you lose this advantage as a Republican if you become a laughingstock on non-political terms -- that's why O'Donnell and Paladino can't get unstuck.

But if you're a Democrat and all you know is that your opponent's political ideas seem loopy in the eyes of "reasonable" observers, you really need to be careful, because those ideas, and that opponent, may sound perfectly acceptable to low-information voters as well as to the right. In that case, stop thinking like a politically well-informed person, and stop thinking like a liberal, or even like a reasonable person. This is America, so you're at serious risk of, um, misunderestimating your opponent's appeal.

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