SOFT BIGOTRY, LOW EXPECTATIONS…. I couldn’t bring myself to watch last night’s debate between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) and extremist challenger Sharron Angle (R), but nearly all of the accounts I’ve read suggested it was dull, depressing, and interminable.

But several reports also note that Angle fared relatively well in the showdown. Kevin Drum, who also didn’t watch, notes that the Republican nominee “may have benefited from galactically low expectations.”

“Angle repeatedly found herself in verbal cul-de-sacs which she only escaped by returning to well-rehearsed talking points,” said Politico’s Jonathan Martin, “all the while blurring over some of her controversial statements or ignoring questions about them altogether.” And the Las Vegas Sun’s Jon Ralston more or less agreed: “Angle won because she looked relatively credible, appearing not to be the Wicked Witch of the West.”

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.

I feel like this has come up more and more lately. Chris Cillizza responded to the same debate agreeing that Angle was “far from impressive,” but she nevertheless “almost certainly met the low bar of credibility she needed to clear to have a real chance at winning the race.”

I understand the point. Observers tune in to see if a candidate can stand there and not run away crying. But in a modern democracy, that’s not much of a standard for powerful statewide offices.

The political world seems to realize that some real nutjobs have won major-party nominations this year, which then apparently leads to surprise when clearly unqualified nominees manage to engage in a debate without drooling on themselves for an hour.

But, really, what do these debate watchers expect? Was there any real chance that Sharron Angle would take the stage last night, pull out a machine gun, and start threatening to kill gay immigrants who used to work for ACORN?

We seem to have developed a depressing checklist: (a) did the candidate show up; (b) did the candidate speak English; (c) did the candidate remember the talking points drilled into his/her head by handlers from Washington; (d) did the candidate repeat the poll-tested zinger; (e) did the candidate avoid some kind of mental breakdown.

If most of the list gets a check mark, then the candidate is necessarily deemed credible enough for service.

We’re talking about entry into the United States Senate, which actually used to mean something. The hurdle for electoral victory and the acquisition of considerable power needs to be considerably higher.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.