Chris Mattews was semi-obsessed about how Joe Biden should act when he and Sarah Palin came out for the debate tonight. Should he be a gentleman and help her with her chair? Or would that be too much?
Uh Chris, they're standing.
Or more specifically, the pre-dates. Answer: It's pure speculation. Actually, it's tactics wrapped in speculation. Or speculation about tactics. Either way, it's fun and easy for the press to play.
It's the same reason the press wallowed in the pre-VP announcement announcements, spending days and even weeks playing the what-if game. It's the reason the press gorged on the convention coverage, specially in Denver as pundits speculated non-stop about how the primetime speeches, especially by the Clintons would play out.
The press in this campaign has really elevated speculation into an art form. Because why? Because it requires no actual reporting. It often doesn't even requiring calling people up for quotes anymore.
Take this pre-debate piece today from the Chicago Tribune. It's nothing but speculation about tactics. This is what now passes for analysis.
Tribune tip for Biden: "please don't smile." Tribune tip for Palin: "Be likable, but not perky."
It's theater criticism run amok. And that's why the press loves debate season.
But if Palin will be under an intense spotlight thanks to doubts about her basic competency, Biden's challenge will be to not prove just how much he knows.
Seriously? Joe Biden is supposed to avoid showing that he has knowledge? Because apparently if there's anything you don't want in the person who is a heartbeat away from the presidency, it's ... knowledge.
Has there ever been a dumber standard set for a debate participant?
Two weeks ago, I noted that in previewing the 2000 debates, the Associated Press asserted: "Gore, who has been staging mock debates under a massive model shark at Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida, cannot afford self-aggrandizing exaggeration (as in, 'I took the initiative in creating the Internet'), mean attacks or smarty-pants condescension."
Watching tonight's debate previews on MSNBC and CNN, it's striking that the journalists participating don't seem to care whether Sarah Palin tells the truth tonight. After all, this is a candidate who introduced herself to America with a false claim exaggerating her role in stopping the "bridge to nowhere" -- then, when caught, she kept right on making the very same false claim.
Yet the media -- once hypersensitive to the mere possiblity that Al Gore might be guilty of "self-aggrandizing exaggeration" and ever-alert for anything a candidate might do that plays into preexisting weaknesses -- don't seem to care whether Palin tells the truth tonight.
UPDATE: Here's another example: The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza offers his take on "What to Watch For" tonight. No mention of the possibility of Palin making a false claim. And little more than passing mention of anything substantive, for that matter.
The media and pundit class has spent much of the day talking about "expectations" for tonight's debate, with the consensus being that they are much lower for Palin. Here's Politico's take this morning:
For Republicans, Palin's stumbles with Couric have been a mixed blessing. While the slip-ups raised questions about the Alaska governor's readiness for national office and increased pressure on her to perform in her sole joint appearance with Biden, they also sent already low expectations plunging even further.
Palin's aides are seeking to raise the bar for Biden just as it has been lowered for Palin.
The expectations game conceals an underlying reality. Obama's camp chose Biden as a running mate in part because he can be an electrifying, passionate presence on television, one who regularly won post-debate focus groups and snap polls in the primaries, and one who has used his (earned) reputation for gaffes to good comic effect. Palin, by contrast, was chosen for her symbolism and her stump speeches -- not for her mastery of the unpredictable formats of interviews and debates.
It's fine for the punditry to decide that there are lower expectations for one candidate or the other - but the thing everyone should be clear on is that there must be the same standard for both. Both candidates are running for the same office. Both have a chance to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. Both have to show they are capable of performing effectively in that role. Both have to meet the same standard - and neither should be awarded bonus points for exceeding "expectations."
The "expectations game" is just that: a game.
Much of the news media is reporting that Barack Obama is pulling away from John McCain ... and suggesting that, because of low expectations, Sarah Palin need only get through tonight's debate without accidentally endorsing Obama in order to be successful. Put the two together, and it's hard to avoid the suspicion that the media is more than ready to push a McCain-Palin "comeback" narrative -- and, consciously or not, to help that comeback along.
Don't believe that kind of thing happens? Here's Brian Williams and Howard Fineman, in a September 21, 2000 exchange:
HOWARD FINEMAN: The media pendulum swings, as you were pointing out before, Brian. Bill Clinton can resurface in this campaign in a way that might not necessarily help Al Gore. And Al Gore himself has a tendency to begin - when he's ahead especially I think - talking down to the country like he's the kindergarten teacher talking to the class. I think all those factors are at play right now as Bush has really had probably the best week he's had since his convention speech. And Gore has had his worst.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Howard, I don't know of any kind of conspiratorial trilateral commission-like council meetings in the news media. But you bring up an interesting point. And boy, it does seem true over the years that the news media almost reserve the right to build up and tear down and change their minds and like an underdog. What's that about?
HOWARD FINEMAN: Well, what it's about is the relentless search for news and the relentless search for friction in the story. I don't think the media was going to allow just by its nature the next seven weeks and the last seven or eight weeks of the campaign to be all about Al Gore's relentless triumphant march to the presidency.
We want a race I suppose. If we have a bias of any kind, it's that we like to see a contest, and we like to see it down the end if we can. And I think that's partly the psychology at play here.
Because they make the media do (even more) foolish things. Paging Politico.
Headline: "Psychics: Stars not aligned for Palin"
[Elizabeth] Joyce, whose website claims she was "born with the authentic gift of psychic ability," was one of a handful of prominent psychics Politico surveyed to get a better "sense" of how the Palin-Biden matchup might shake out. According to their occult minds, Biden has the edge and, ominously, the moon and stars are not aligned in Palin's favor.
Joe Biden "has benefited from resources and relationships not available to average Americans."
And yes, that's an A1 story today.