The failure to manage expectations

I’ve observed this mid-term election in much the same way I observe a major league baseball season: from afar, reading only the occasional box score, waiting until the playoffs to get too curious. And most similar: Being glad it’s over. Like I am with baseball, I didn’t have a team to cheer for this campaign season. My two favorite Tennessee candidates, both Democrats (Bredesen for governor and Cooper for Congress), are shoe-ins. The only real competitive race, the one for U.S. Senate, has been so awful I’ve begun to re-consider the whole democracy thing. Fortunately, I read enough American history to know that such doubts in our system have been around since the beginning. (Sidenote: reading John Ferling’s outstanding book, Adams vs. Jefferson, and reviewing the presidential election of 1800 helped me hold my nose through this year. That election was more vicious, but was the first of many examples of how American democracy has pulled through the worst of times.)

Back to baseball. I have this friend who follows baseball the entire season — indeed, the entire calendar year. She is a big Cardinals fan and even travels to St. Louis every year to attend a game. This season, I was impressed with her expectation management all season. She refused, even with three wins in the World Series in the bag, to accept the fact that her team wasn’t going to disappoint her yet again.

For some reason, this same friend has chosen a different approach in managing her expectations for her Party this mid-term election. For months, she’s convinced herself that Democrats are going to win control of both the House and Senate. She has also convinced herself that her candidate, Harold Ford Jr., is going to win.

She is going to be disappointed. And it’s her fault. She’s not alone.

An article in today’s New York Times examines the dilemma that some Democrats have caused by poor expectation management. In looking at “why a gain may feel like a failure,” the article points out that “galloping optimism by Democratic leaders and bloggers, and polls that promise a Democratic blowout — expectations for the party have soared into the stratosphere. Democrats are widely expected to take the House, and by a significant margin, and perhaps the Senate as well, while capturing a majority of governorships and legislatures.”

For most of American history, a sitting President’s party has suffered setbacks in off-year elections. If a pickup of 15 in the House is all that’s needed for the Democrats declaration of victory and the laying of some “big mo” for 2008, why raise the bar of expectations? It’s human nature, I guess. Or perhaps, it’s the desire we have to turn politics and campaigns and elections into sporting events. To choose sides. To love our team, no matter what. To hate the other team. To mismanage expectations about how great our team is, and how awful the other guys are. To be disappointed when our team, which was lucky to make it to the playoffs, wins the league championship but not the World Series.

From my cheap seats in the bleachers, I’ve thought the Democratic Party’s strategy this year has been brilliantly simple and, more impressive, the players and fans actually followed the playbook. Again, I have to squint from my seats, but this is what I’ve observed the Democrats game plan to be:

1. Make the election a referendum on Bush’s management of the War in Iraq. Do everything you can to communicate one message, and one message only: Vote for a Democrat if you are frustrated with our troops being in a country where the people they freed don’t seem to like us. I could go on, but you get the idea: if Democrats win control of the House and Senate, it was because the Party was successful in convincing those of us who are frustrated with the current situation in Iraq (and who among us is not) that a change in the balance of political power in the U.S. is the only way we can get that message heard.

2. If you are a Democratic Party candidate in a traditionally red-state leaning region, run right of your Republican opponent. That’s especially been true here in Tennessee. The national drive-by coverage of the campaign has focused on the fact that Harold Ford Jr. is an African American and has, according to the pollsters, led his white Republican opponent for the past several months. Inside the state, the campaign has been remarkable to longtime observers for other reasons: that an urbane Democratic candidate whose is a scion to a political “machine” (complete with real-time criminal proceedings) can run as a conservative ideologue somewhere right of the up-from-humble-roots, good-ole-boy Republican opponent — and pull it off. What this should be telling Democrats somewhere is this: Republicans rule the south because Democrats have abdicated it — not because southerners possess some redneck gene that causes them (us) to vote red. This may not be good news for the ideological purists in the Democratic Party, but for those who want to win elections, it seems fairly obvious that Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign strategy is still an winner: co-op the opponent’s issues (in his case, a balanced budget and welfare reform) and for God sakes, talk a lot about God and how much you believe in Him. (P.S. If you are running for office, make sure you refer to God as a male.)

That’s it. A two-point plan. If it had more points than that, it would have fallen apart. Its brilliance was in its simplicity.

One last thing. Here are my predictions for the “final scores” from today’s races, not earth-shattering nor particularly studied, however, we have an office competition and I had to come up with something. (Independents and Democrats, for this prediction, are on the same “team”): In the Senate: Republicans 51, Democrats 49. In the House: Republicans 215, Democrats 220.

That’s my prediction. But frankly, I’ll have no disappointment if I’m way off. I’m just glad it’s over.

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