For months, Herschel Walker refused to agree to debate Sen. Raphael Warnock in the Georgia Senate race.
Walker had also not debated any of his Republican primary challengers. He was riding a Donald Trump endorsement and the widespread resentment aimed at Warnock. There was no need for debate.
Also, based on his incoherent, often incomprehensible public statements, he was bound to be horrible at it.
Now the two candidates have finally agreed to a debate — on Oct. 14, in Savannah — and Walker has already begun to do what Republicans unprepared for the roles they run for often do: lower expectations for himself and raise them for his opponent.
Walker said last week about the debate:
“I’m this country boy, you know. I’m not that smart. And he’s a preacher. He’s a smart man, wears these nice suits. So he is going to show up and embarrass me at the debate Oct. 14, and I’m just waiting to show up and I’m going to do my best.”
Mr. Walker, I’m also a country boy. In fact, there were about 2,000 people in your hometown, Wrightsville, Ga., when you were born in 1962. My hometown, Gibsland, La., had about 1,400 people when I was born in 1970.
What does this mean as it relates to wisdom and intellect? Absolutely nothing.
Many American presidents were so-called country boys from small towns. Bill Clinton was from a small Arkansas town, Hope, which had a population of about 9,000 in 2020. Jimmy Carter’s hometown is Plains, Ga., with a 2020 population of about 760. And Ronald Reagan was born in Tampico, Ill., with a 2020 population of about 770.
Mr. Walker, I believe you when you say that you’re not smart. But intelligence has nothing to do with the size of your hometown or the quality of your suit. You are the personification of a game being played by Georgia Republicans: a wager that any Black Republican — in your case, an empty intellectual vessel — can beat the Black Democrat, a man who is thoroughly qualified and utterly decent.
Walker is Georgia Republicans’ attempt to undermine the image of Black competence, by making a mockery of Black people, by replacing a thinker with a toady.
It seems clear to me that Walker will inflate or deflate his intellect to fit a function. The truth is irrelevant. This is at the heart of Trumpism.
And this is all political strategy. Walker for years claimed to have graduated from the University of Georgia in the top 1 percent of his class, although he didn’t graduate from the school at all.
But when he was there, The New York Times reported, he had “a B average in criminal justice.”
Now he’s framing himself as not at all smart.
It is all an attempt to lower the bar of the debate so low that anyone, even Walker, can clear it.
This is the same approach that George W. Bush’s team used against Al Gore. As Karen Hughes, the Bush adviser overseeing his debate prep told The Times in 2016: “Keeping quiet was a way to keep expectations low for Gov. Bush. In debates, you run against expectations almost as much as you run against your opponent.”
The debate was scored by many as a win by Bush, who came across as “relatable,” while the clearly more knowledgeable Gore was chastised for sighing during the debate and appearing exasperated with Bush, a dynamic that Politico magazine ranked as one of “the eight biggest unforced errors in debate history.”
It is the same tactic Trump used against Hillary Rodham Clinton, clearly the most qualified of the two for the presidency. As The Atlantic wrote at the time:
“Through a combination of months of campaigning, leaks about his debate prep, and aggressive working of the referees, Trump has set expectations so low that it’s hard to imagine how he finishes the debate without getting positive reviews from mainstream commentators.”
And sure enough, that’s what happened. As a Times article put it the day after the debate:
“By the standards Mr. Trump, his team and we in the news media seemed to have set for the Republican nominee, Mr. Trump cleared the bar. He stayed more or less in control, never directly insulted Mrs. Clinton and did not create new controversies over policy.”
Now it’s time for Walker to take a swing, playing the same game, and the media is playing into it in predictable ways.
As Georgia Public Broadcasting wrote last week: “Simply appearing on the debate stage is more than what many politics watchers expected of Walker, and even a tepid debate performance could assuage some fears about his campaign and could reiterate his message and celebrity status just two days before in-person early voting begins.”
Enough of this foolishness. Enough giving the unqualified undue lenience. Enough of giving laurels for simply bare-minimum composure and demerits for knowledge and acumen.
Whether Warnock embarrasses Walker or Walker embarrasses himself or there is no embarrassment to be had during the debate is not the point. The point is that Warnock is a serious, competent candidate, and Walker is clearly a tool of his party — a Black former athlete hand-picked by Trump to take down a highly educated Black clergyman who was elected by a coalition led by an ascendant Black electorate in the state.
No one on the night of debate — no matter how it unfolds, no matter how the much the media sacrifices message to mannerism — can change these truths.
When Herschel Walker tells you he’s not that smart, believe him.