Politicians and the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

To the extent that these faux debates are a measure of competence to hold the office in question, Sharron Reid's holding her own against the veteran incumbent demonstrated that she was up to the task. Or, at least, as up to it as Reid.

Kevin Drum, reacting to press accounts crediting Sharron Angle with holding her own in last night’s wretched debate with Harry Reid, observes:

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.

While I think he’s right in general, he’s probably wrong on the particular.   The point seems to be, not that Angle wasn’t as awful as everyone figured she’d be but that  she was every bit as good — or, should I say, every bit as bad — as Harry Reid.   Reid has been in the Senate 23 years and the leader of the Senate Democrats since 2005.   So, to the extent that these faux debates are a measure of competence to hold the office in question, holding her own against the veteran incumbent demonstrated that she was up to the task.  Or, at least, as up to it as Reid.

Now, I happen to think these scripted exchanges of talking points with an interlocutor from the press are mostly worthless.  Indeed, I’m not sure that even Oxford or Lincoln-Douglas style debates tell you much about competence to perform in a given political office.  Those, at least, test intellect, the ability to think on one’s feet, and temperament.  But the skill sets are still only tangentially related to the day-to-day task of governing.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. mantis says:

    …to the extent that these faux debates are a measure of competence to hold the office..

    And to what extent do you think these debates are such a measure?

  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    The point seems to be, not that Angle wasn’t as awful as everyone figured she’d be……So, to the extent that these faux debates are a measure of competence to hold the office in question, ”

    But that’s the point. They’re not a measure of competence to hold office or Calvin Coolidge would never have been president and Chris Hitchens should be a senator. I haven’t watched the debate and I’m sure it was fairly excruciating on both sides but whatever his failures of presentation it’s hard to argue that Reid is not a highly experienced legislator. Nor that his personal story of growing up in a tar paper shack in the boondocks of Nevada and ending up as Senate majority leader is not indicative of some intelligence, character and persistence.

  3. john personna says:

    Maybe the people of Nevada would rather be known for a junior crank that a high-flying magnet for controversy.

    In a Machiavellian sense, a state would be better off with a Majority Leader no matter his view, right?

  4. Wayne says:

    And prepared campaign speeches, being groom and displayed by the establishments or softball interviews are measurements of competence to hold office?

  5. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Politicians and the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations”

    Jim, you could well have titled this:

    Politicians and the soft bigotry of Superficiality.

  6. Akatsukami says:

    Yes, that Angle is a freak and a crank. To stand a chance, she’d have to be running against Harry Reid!

  7. This all goes back to the fact that modern political debates, at least on the national stage, have almost nothing to do with substance and everything to do with “performance”

    Back in 1984, President Reagan came off as tired and detached in his first debate with Walter Mondale and the talk was about whether or not Reagan was “too old” (a debate that ignored the fact that Mondale wasn’t that much younger than Reagan at the time). So when the next debate came everyone was focused on how Reagan would “look” rather than what he said. After he used the “I will not make my opponents youth and inexperience” line (a line that even made Mondale laugh), whatever else happened in the debate was irrelevant.

    The same thing happened in a different way in the Palin-Biden debate in 2008. As long as Palin didn’t come off as a blithering idiot, she would be considered the “winner” regardless of what she actually said.

    Lincoln-Douglas it ain’t

  8. dave in dallas says:

    What has struck me here from the beginning is that Sharron Angle is a sort of “well, if nobody else will do it, I guess it’ll have to be me” reluctant warrior for principle. She KNOWS she is not great on camera, not quick with a turn of phrase, not clever enough to keep sharpening the knife and increasing the pressure with every syllable she says.. she KNOWS.

    Reid, though, seems to think that whatever he says, it’s good, just because HE said it. Reid is reluctant to LEAVE office, Angle is reluctant to RUN for office.

    She was nominated because of one thing she is NOT reluctant about– conservative principles. She was chosen because her principles resonated with her voters. Reid has NO principles, resonates with NOBODY, and is in office primarily because he’s corruptible. Remember his position on illegal aliens not so many years ago? If you didn’t come legally, you broke our laws and disrespected our sovereignty and you have to go back home and come here LEGALLY!!!

    so he said in the mid 1990s. On the senate floor.

    Now it’s the opposite, of course.

    Reid used his influence to ‘swap’ land packages through government ownership, i.e. a developer buys a plot of so so land, really wanting the plot next to it that is FEDERAL land.. and Harry Reid arranges for the government to balance its land books by trading their parcel for the one the developer bought. Presto, the developer is in business to sell his ‘new’ land for way more than he paid for the old (now FEDERAL) land, and who gets a cut of that sale price?


    He’s done this several times. Gotten a cut for using influence to alter federal policy of land ownership in favor of developers.

    He is sickeningly corrupt and all the more sickening for being such a pompous moralizer. He is supported by SEIU, which is hugely represented in Vegas through the hotel and gambling industries. I seem to recall in the last election some voting irregularities, polling places set up inside the hotels where all the SEIU types worked, so they could vote without leaving work, etc etc.

    It is not a grim, miserable choice between the barely competent, folks. It is a choice between the radical leftism that is destroying this nation (of which Reid is a part, having worked so hard to nationalize health care and declare military defeat and so forth) and ANYTHING BUT THAT RADICAL LEFTISM.

    I’ll give conservatism a try. I’ll vote for somebody who will abide by the constitution.

    And I don’t care if they look or sound good on TV.

    Either government is limited or it is UNLIMITED. It is a stark, clear, agonizing choice. Instead of trashing our candidates, we should be freakin’ CHEERLEADING them, not for their own sake but for the NATION.

  9. MathMom says:

    The first 15 minutes of the debate were painful to watch. I was shocked at how bad Reid was – I mean, he runs his mouth as his full-time job, but he had only platitudes, and he stammered a lot as if he was rummaging around in his brain for something to say. Angle spoke haltingly and seemed like she was trying to remember her notes, though what she said at least had some substance.

    Then, she began to smooth out her delivery and really land some blows.

    If I were a Nevada voter, I’d vote for her. Heck! Maybe I’ll go register really quick in Nevada and voter for her, as well as voting in Texas. SEIU would be proud!

  10. jorgxmckie says:

    I’m getting rather more than tired of the Drum’s of the country [albeit backhandedly] defending crappy Democratic elected officials. When is the Dem party gonna start “cleaning house” of some of these idiots. Not that there aren’t idiotic Repub incumbents, but Drum never seems, oddly enough, to defend them.

    Perhaps they could have pushed out at least the sort of Patty Murray types they have.

    I’m neither a Republican or Democrat, but I suppose you see this mostly for Dems because so much of the MSM, at least, is liberal, and they tend to at least repeat these arguments.

    I well remember a good friend betting me in Sep or so of 2000 that Gore would slaughter Bush in the debates because he had so much practice in the Senate and such. I offered to bet him that: a) if the polls showed Gore ‘winnning’ it would be by less than 52-48, b) that Bush would actually win any debate in which he didn’t, in reality, stumble off the stage *and* break his nose, and; c) as a result, Bush would lead the national voting polls and probably win the election. He foolishly took the bet.

    Look. Why is there a perceived [by Dems and especially the Left] “soft bigotry of low expectations”? Well, it”s because if Einstein were running as a Republican, Democrats, the Left, the MSM and such would insist he was somehow too stupid to be a good elected official. I can see Drum’s argument: “Well, he may be an adequate theoretical physicist, but politics is different, and he really doesn’t know as much as [Reid, Murray, Boxer, any given dimbulb Dem] and therefore is too dumb to deserve to be elected.”