The Senate majority leader should've stayed home.

Why Harry Reid agreed to have a debate with Sharron Angle is a bit of a mystery to me. If your campaign is based on portraying your opponent as loony, then why give that opponent a chance to look reasonable? Lyndon Johnson never debated Barry Goldwater. Then again, I’m no political strategist. And neither, I’ve come to see, is Harry Reid. So let’s focus on what matters now: that a debate was held in Nevada last night between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Republican challenger Sharron Angle. And its upshot was—sorry, folks—that Angle improved her chances. 

I’m not suggesting that Sharron Angle, having been granted the opportunity to look reasonable, looked reasonable. On the contrary, she was very much herself—smiling maniacally in her crimson suit and hurling out bizarre fictions. But she looked reasonable enough. Lies about policy don’t really hurt you in a debate, especially when they’re voiced with conviction. What hurts you is looking evasive and squishy. Sharron Angle provided the lies. Harry Reid provided the squish.

I should mention that the moderator, Mitch Fox, did a very good job, in case that cheers anyone up. It might at least cheer Mitch Fox up. But this viewer, who has reported on Sharron Angle enough to find her alarming, was really more interested in seeing a good performance by Harry Reid.

The first question concerned illegal immigration. Why, asked Fox, had Reid neglected border security for so long? Reid started by pointing to new efforts to secure the border but soon veered into “comprehensive immigration reform,” a treacherous topic that wasn’t even raised by the moderator. “We have to do something about the people that are here that are undocumented, have them pay taxes, penalties, fines,” said Reid.

Sharron Angle’s answer was far firmer. “What we have here is an illegal alien problem,” Angle said, “and the solution is simple: secure the borders, enforce the laws. I think every state should have a sheriff like Joe Arpaio, and we should be supporting Arizona instead of suing Arizona, like Senator Reid and President Obama have. When they sued Arizona, they also allowed eleven foreign countries to join in that suit. Senator Reid, you’ve allowed eleven foreign countries to dictate our immigration law.”

To be sure, almost none of this was true. Harry Reid has nothing to do with foreign nations getting involved in the lawsuit against Arizona. And eleven foreign nations certainly aren’t dictating U.S. immigration law. (What actually happened was that they were permitted by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to file what is called an amicus brief.) But Angle’s answer was confident and clear, successfully depicting Reid as a liberal caricature.

Reid had a remarkable chance to score points when Fox asked Angle if she favored requiring health insurance companies to cover certain procedures. “What we have is a choice between the free market and Americanism,” Angle said. “The free market will weed out those companies that don’t offer as many choices and don’t offer a cost-effective system.” In short, Angle was saying that insurance companies should be subject to almost zero regulation.

Offered such a clear expression of Angle’s zealotry, Reid almost refrained from blowing the opportunity. “Insurance companies don’t do things out of the goodness of their hearts,” Reid began. “They do it out of a profit motive, and they have almost destroyed our economy.”

But things quickly got a great deal less coherent:

We need them to be forced to do mammograms. That’s why you see breast cancer awareness month. You see the baseball players wearing pink shoes, and you the football players having pink, uh, uh, helmets. It’s because people dread breast cancer, and you don’t get breast cancer, you can—correct breast cancer—you detect it if you do mammograms. Colonoscopies, if you do colonoscopies, colon cancer does not come because you snip off the—things they find when they go up and—no more, and we need to have insurance companies do this…

Forgive me if I choose to snip off Reid’s answer there.

Fox asked the candidates whether they favored having the federal government fund abortions under the new health care law. Yes or no?

ANGLE: No.
REID: Well, we passed—maintained—Hyde, Hyde Amendment.
MODERATOR: That would be a yes or no?
REID: [pause] Uh, under the law, eh, that exists today, the Hyde amendment, which has been the law in this country for 30 years, is still there.

Don’t ask me why Reid had to answer in this manner. Just don’t.

Angle was soon deep into the next solar system, accusing Harry Reid of plundering social security, telling seniors that Obamacare will rob Medicare of half a trillion dollars, alleging that under Obamacare no one was permitted to choose his health insurance plan. But Reid, transported on Angle’s magical fun ship, seemed only to get limper.

Asked about the foreclosure crisis, Angle blamed Reid for it, slammed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and called for an audit of the Federal Reserve. But first, she said, “We have to investigate what caused the problem in the first place.”

Reid’s response:

We do have a commission. We have a Las Vegan, Byron Georgiou, Heather Murren, on that to find out what really happened with the collapse, so we’re—we’re on top of that. Federal Reserve, I called for a Federal Reserve audit in 1985—eighty-seven, I’m sorry—so I agree with my opponent on that. There should be a Federal Reserve audit. We haven’t gotten it yet, it’s uh—but we’ve made some progress in that regard.

Excellent, with the greatest financial collapse of the past seven decades, we’ve got Byron and Heather looking into it. Check that one off. And maybe, with all the progress on that Fed audit since 1987, we’ll get there by 2030.

I could go on with my laments about Reid’s performance—about how he fumbled an answer on Social Security, about how he picked Antonin Scalia and Byron “Whizzer” White as particular Supreme Court favorites, about how he couldn’t find his closing statement and wound up shuffling through his papers and then reading something that didn’t really work anyway. But we’re all busy people. No, let’s not dwell on the past, the 12-long-hours-ago past. 

Anyway, the biggest problem wasn’t that Harry Reid is a bad debater, though that he clearly is. The trouble was that Reid faced an opponent of far stronger beliefs and far fewer scruples. In an appraisal of the rambling style of George Bush the Elder, Michael Kinsley once speculated on the relationship between convictions and manner of speaking. “A man anchored in true beliefs of some sort not only would be more articulate in expressing those beliefs,” wrote Kinsley. “He would make a better liar, too.” This was why “Ronald Reagan, a man of a few, clear, rock-hard beliefs, was a brilliant liar.” Harry Reid basically offered the truth, but with little conviction or coherence. Sharron Angle offered conviction and coherence, but with very little truth. You might prefer the former type of salesperson, but which one makes the sale?

T.A. Frank is a writer in Los Angeles and an editor at The Washington Monthly.

For a different take on the Nevada debate, see Ed Kilgore's post, "Sharron Angle's Self-Parody vs. Harry Reid's Missed Chances."

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