Having just watched the long-awaited, one-time-only debate between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican nominee Sharron Angle, I have to say I can’t imagine too many voters were swayed one way or another by what they saw, though the post-debate spin could change things.
The debate format was unusual, to say the least: Every question was essentially a viewer-suggested attack line offered up by the moderator to one candidate or another; indeed, he articulated them with visible emotion, alternatively identifying with angry Tea Partiers or angry progressives.
Reinforcing the sense of Kabuki Theater, both candidates played to type, almost to the point of self-parody. When Sharron Angle wasn’t saying something outrageous, she was blowing dog whistles, repeatedly invoking constitutional originalism and the Tenth Amendment, those hardy perennial symbols of the Tea Party's desire to return domestic governance to the size and power they maintained during the Coolidge administration. And Harry Reid was the consummate veteran senator, mired in legislative and programmatic language, beginning nearly every answer or rebuttal in mid-sentence, failing to provide the context necessary for viewers to understand his broader message. He was also exceptionally defensive, responding to Angle’s categorical worship of right-wing totems with claims that he’s not all that liberal himself.
The potential gotcha moment in the debate was when Angle, pressed by the moderator, admitted she did not favor any mandates of any sort on insurance companies. Reid stuck to his campaign talking points, decrying Angle’s opposition to mandated coverage for specific procedures, such as mammograms, and missing the chance to destroy her for apparent opposition to any regulation of insurers whatsoever—a position that threatens virtually every Nevada voter with health insurance. Similarly, Reid had a chance to go after Angle’s oft-repeated position favoring privatization of Social Security and Medicare, but his efforts to do so degenerated into a murky argument over various estimates of the solvency of the Social Security fund.
I’m not a Nevadan, and thus have no real sense of how the two candidates came across personally, particularly as compared with prior expectations. But my own impression was that Angle is an amiable kook, and Reid, for better or for worse, is the prime example of that complicated beast, the purple-state Democratic senator. Without question, Angle offered up the biggest targets for post-debate spin, and as we speak, Team Reid is probably coming up with a frightening set of hypotheticals involving her desire for a totally unregulated health insurance market.
As I have been writing this reaction, I've been half-listening to another CSPAN debate between Senator Patty Murray and her Republican challenger, Dino Rossi. Compared to the Nevada tilt, it’s coming across like Lincoln-Douglas.
UPDATE: Sure enough, the Reid campaign is already out with an ad that blasts Angle for her refusal to support any insurance mandates, using a clip from the debate. It goes to show that, sometimes, the real impact of a debate is not what happens in the heat of battle, but the audio-visual ammunition it provides to make points the debater may have missed.