Angle/Reid: Or, Can Hayek Win A Debate?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 15 2010 9:28 AM

Angle/Reid: Or, Can Hayek Win A Debate?

Having missed it while on a flight, I finally watched the debate between Harry Reid and Sharron Angle. Jonathan Martin had a solid analysis, but these nut grafs were repeated in a lot of the coverage I read:

Anglerepeatedly found herself in verbal cul-de-sacs which she only escapedby returning to well-rehearsed talking points – all the while blurringover some of her controversial statements or ignoring questions aboutthem altogether.

Reid was also inarticulate, frequently using the parlance of the Senateand offering kind words about former President George W. Bush andSupreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia—hardly the way to motivate hisDemocratic base.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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Why the equivalence between a debate problem that sounds an awful lot like ignorance versus one that sounds like knowledge with lousy expression? Ah, yes, I know: We are supposed to view these debates as the sainted Swing Voter does, looking for folksiness and zingers, because the Swing Voter is stupid and that's what he wants. And I'll agree that modern debates are mostly joint public appearances -- there's no drilling down into issues as can be done in long interviews.

But I've been watching lots of debates between Democrats and Tea Party-supported candidates, and I don't think Angle acquitted herself as well as the median Tea Partier has. (I don't think Reid was incredible, but bear with me.) The successful Tea Partier has framed all of his complaints with the government as compassionate -- he's trying to protect them from the government's recklessness. Where Angle failed was in making the Hayek 101 argument that competition would literally take care of everything -- an argument that begs the question, is the government actually trying to protect me from something? And that's rough terrain, because the Republican comeback is not based purely on outrage against the government. It's based, too, on outrage at Wall Street and the idea that the government is "picking winners and losers" in business -- collusion.

Take the health care exchange, which seemed like Angle's weakest moment. Asked whether she still believed, as she did as a state legislator, that health insurance companies should not be obligated to cover certain procedures, Angle responded with a cold answer about free markets. "You don't have to force anyone to buy a product that no one wants." This allowed Reid to do what Democrats have not been able to do credibly since the start of the health care debate: Position himself against the insurance companies, as a watchdog on their abuses. Angle's follow-up was also weirdly cold. Reid had rambled a bit about how the Susan Komen and other anti-breast cancer campaigns proved how worried the public was about treatment, so Angle riffed: "Pink ribbons are not going to help anyone have a better insurance plan." What does that even mean? Let's say the government is totally removed from health insurance -- wouldn't third-party fundraising pressure groups play an important role in keeping companies honest?

Because Reid is a weird, dry speaker, we've seen a lot of commentary about how both he and Angle are "gaffe prone." That's the wrong way to look at them. Reid's verbal gaffes, like his "negro dialect" comment about Obama (in print, not audio, but still), are just that -- gaffes, words come out the wrong way. The "gaffes" that hurt Angle are too-raw expressions of pure libertarianism that she has to skeddadle away from, like her Social Security stance. Republicans aren't winning because of opposition to government. They're winning because of anger at bad governance. That's why you see small government candidates promising to restore $500 billion to Medicare. And that's why this race is close, even though it shouldn't be. So just looking for zingers fails to identify what actually got said in the debate.

Now: Bring on the Jim DeMint/Alvin Greene debate.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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