Politics is often about managing expectations. If you’re Sarah Palin right now, you want expectations to be lower than the effectiveness of abstinence-based sex education. And, as her daughter Bristol could probably tell you, that’s very low indeed.
And that’s why Sarah Palin nailed the American Vice-Presidential debate on Friday. Simply by turning up and not being completely outclassed, she confounded the record television audience who tuned in to watch her fail. I sure did, hoping that she’d go to pieces even more comprehensively than she did against Katie Couric, to whom she gave that now-classic answer about Putin raising his head and going over Alaska. I still don’t understand quite what she was trying to say, and I’m absolutely certain that she didn’t. But an abject lack of foreign policy credentials has rarely been more amusing.
Commentators agree, though, that she didn’t stuff up this time. Sure, she really never strayed from the soundbites she’d memorised, meaning that her replies often bore only the most minimal connection to the question she’d been asked. And she grinned and winked throughout, even after Joe Biden talked about losing his wife in a car crash. But since the White House’s current incumbent can’t even deliver a convincing soundbite when his country’s attacked by terrorists, Palin definitely crossed the bar, ankle-high though it was.
Most importantly, she didn’t fall to pieces, and consequently staunched the damaging flow of stories about her inadequacy, throwing the focus back John McCain. And that’s surely the only way the Republicans can win this. Because the novelty of a VP candidate who’s a former beauty queen and knows how to unload a hunting rifle into a moose – which was admittedly considerable – has well and truly worn off. The hope that Palin would bring over Hillary’s voters now seems a forlorn one, since roughly the only thing they have in common are their pair of X chromosomes and their hatred of Barack Obama.
Still, for now the Alaskan Governor has managed to stop the story being about her, and that wasn’t easy. She’s the least qualified person on a Presidential ticket in living memory, and her argument that she has foreign policy experience because you can see empty bits of Russia from empty bits of Alaska making George Bush look like a diplomatic grandmaster. This becomes especially relevant when the chance of her needing to step up to the top job are quite high. John McCain is not only asking to be elected the oldest President in American history, but survived multiple skin cancers and apparently has an excellent chance of contracting another. In short, he’s more likely to die on the job than a BASE jumper with slow reflexes.
But if Sarah Palin can survive as a potential President, for now it least, where else can the managing expectations trick work? Perhaps not in Australian politics, if you consider Brendan Nelson. Despite the low expectations of an Opposition Leader in the first year of a new Government, he still managed to fall well short of them. And voters’ low expectations of our own spunky lady maverick, Pauline Hanson, haven’t helped her win anything much either – not even Dancing With The Stars.
Managing expectations could work, however, when it comes to dating. Next time I take someone out to dinner, I will start the meal by explaining that I will talk largely about myself, appear bored when they’re speaking, and steal food from their plate when they go to the bathroom. If my date appears concerned, I’ll reassure them, Palin-style, that I have considerable dating experience because people go on dates near where I live, and I can see them, often through binoculars. How can it fail? And if it does, they’ll have been forewarned. Making it their fault.
The other people in this election who have been cultivating low expectations, of course, are American voters themselves. If I may paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to elect George W. Bush once may be regarded as a misfortune, but electing him twice looks like carelessness. If the voters do choose to place Sarah Palin a tumour away from the nuclear launch codes, the rest of the world will have been forewarned as well. And if the result should go to the US Supreme Court, we would all definitely expect them to make the wrong decision. Next month, let’s hope that American voters, like Sarah Palin when she took on Joe Biden, pleasantly surprise us. Even if that’s just by not making as big a hash of it as we expect.