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The GOP Must’ve Learned Lowering Expectations from a Master


Murray Warmath, Sarah Palin

No, it’s not Karl Rove. I’m speaking of Murray Warmath.

And who is Murray Warmath when he’s home? He happens to have been the world’s greatest expert on lowering expectations.

From 1954 through the 1971 season, Warmath was head football coach at the University of Minnesota. Although he won two Big Ten titles, mostly he spent his time compiling a mediocre 65-57-4 record. But the alumni association never clamoured for his head and he held his job considerably longer than did most large college coaches who never won a Bowl Game or a national championship.

It was all because Murray Warmath (on the left) was the master of lowering expectations.

As happens at many major universities, during his tenure Minnesota held an annual alumni dinner, a gathering of donors, potential donors and illustrious grads. Warmath always was a speaker. Every year, he stood up and talked about how next season was going to be tough: He’d lost X number of graduating seniors, there would be a lot of freshmen on the team, everyone else in the Big Ten had a more experienced line or a proven quarterback or something that spelled doom for the Golden Gophers every time they hit the gridiron.

Well, by the time ol’ Murray finished badmouthing himself, the school’s bad luck and his team’s wilting chances, the gathered poobah’s of the alumni association figured Warmath would be a miracle worker if he managed to pull off a win or two and not end up in the conference cellar.

The fact is Warmath’s teams were never as bad as he predicted – and he knew it standing before the alums every spring. But he kept his job year-after-so-so-year by being the master of lowering expectations. How else can you explain his 18 year tenure as head coach during an era where “win here today or go elsewhere tomorrow” was college football’s mantra?

From Warmath to Palin
Enter Sarah Palin, currently hiding away at John McCain’s palatial Arizona estate getting ready for Thursday’s debate with Joe Biden.

Yesterday, Politico reported news of disenchanted grumblings coming from inside the camp about her performance during two rehearsals with senior McCain advisors. She’s doing miserably, came the reports; even hubby Todd was said to be “worried.” On MSNBC’s Countdown, Keith Olbermann and Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson discussed the gruesome predictions with some glee.

But where people on the left predict pending disaster, I see the ghost of Murray Warmath striding through the Arizona desert.

McCain’s people are running a straight replay of Murray’s unchanging playbook from alumni association dinners that stretched across three decades. By the time Palin’s handler’s get finished lowering expectations, if she doesn’t belch on camera the country may be loudly applauding her ability to stand toe to toe with Joe Biden. That’s their goal, at least, because it’s the only thing that can change their candidate from a Tina Fey skit into being seen as “vice presidential.”

It certainly won’t happen on its own, not from a woman who couldn’t remember the name of one newspaper she reads every day other than to say “I read whatever they put in front of me.”

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Gwen’s Delicate Task
Debate moderator Gwen Ifill will have her hands full.

On one side of the stage will be a policy wonk whose head is filled with facts and figures who talks too much. On the other side will be a woman of superficial knowledge, an ability to not answer questions and who everyone in the country will be watching to see if she utters something totally stupid.

“In what sense, Charley?” and “Oh! And it’s about job creation!” are the “I’m way over my head here” lines of the campaign.

But former Alaska gubernatorial candidate Andrew Halcro, writing in today’s Christian Science Monitor warns that Palin can be slippery in a debate.

“Palin is a master of the non-answer,” Halcro warns. “She can turn a 60-second response to a query about her specific solutions to healthcare challenges into a folksy story about how she's met people on the campaign trail who face healthcare challenges. All without uttering a word about her public-policy solutions to healthcare challenges.”

My hunch is that the NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill will be more adept and forceful at trying to get an actual answer from Palin than, say, the anchor of a local newscast or an Anchorage political reporter.

But Halcro remembers Palin pulling the same stunt in their debates as she did with CBS’s Katie Couric.

“In one debate,” he says, “a moderator asked the candidates to name a bill the legislature had recently passed that we didn't like. I named one. Democratic candidate Tony Knowles named one. But Sarah Palin instead used her allotted time to criticize the incumbent governor, Frank Murkowski. Asked to name a bill we did like, the same pattern emerged: Palin didn't name a bill.”

I think she'll try pulling the same stunt Thursday night in St. Louis. Here’s hoping that Ms. Ifill is ready to step in and challenge Palin’s artful dodging.

These aren’t trivial matters; indeed, providing tough, independent, in-depth reporting of these stories is the reason journalism exists. But when owners, executives, reporters, editors and producers collectively fail to do their job, our nation is less free and, in the case of the current crisis, a whole lot poorer.


Charley James

If you're born in Milwaukee, you are born a Democrat. And so I gravitated naturally to liberal politics, first as journalist and then an activist. I've been writing since I was eight years old and, after working in newsrooms for far too long, I have devoted much of the past decade as an independent investigative journalist. When not writing about politics or George Bush, I scribble out essays on the peculiarities of modern times.

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