Magazine | March 9, 2009, Issue

The Democrats’ Senate Scrapper

Harry Reid in the new Washington

On the recent Inauguration Day, Washington became solidly Democratic. And there are three kings in this new Washington. The kingiest of all, of course, is President Obama. Then there is the famous, notorious Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House. (She is more of a queen than a king, to be sure.) And then you have Harry Reid, the majority leader of the Senate. He is maybe less starry than the other two monarchs. But he is a Democratic and governmental big, now more than ever.

In the last Congress, he had a very slim majority. These days, he has quite a cushion (no matter the result of the Minnesota election, which is pending). As the new Congress was sworn in, he said, “I’m so excited, so pleased, and so happy to have a real majority now.”

Maybe the most charming thing he ever said was, “I know my limitations. I haven’t gotten where I am by my good looks, my athletic ability, my great brain, my oratorical skills . . .” People have long remarked on his unprepossessing appearance. They say he is part accountant, part undertaker. You recall that, in November 2004, Reid took over as minority leader from Tom Daschle, who had been defeated in South Dakota. An article in the New York Times said, “It is hardly clear to his allies that Mr. Reid, with his round glasses, plain face and soft-spoken manner, is the man to replace Mr. Daschle as the loyal if lonely face of the Democratic opposition, soldiering on from news conferences to television studios.” And Sen. Joe Biden said, “I can’t picture Harry on the Sunday shows every Sunday. I don’t think that’s his strength. His real strength is inside baseball, knowing the Senate, knowing the procedures.”

If I may interpret, what the future vice president was saying was: Leave the gabby pretty-boy stuff to me.

Reid may not be Periclean (though he is at least the equal of Biden), but it can be enjoyable to hear him talk. For example, here he is on the effort to make Yucca Mountain — in his home state of Nevada — the federal nuclear-waste repository (and remember that he staunchly opposes this effort): “It’s dying on its own. It’s just happening. You don’t need just a sudden demise. It’s breathing really hard. Just let it lay there a while and it’ll be dead.” At the same time, he can speak with a viciously partisan and extremist tongue. Of President Bush, whom he openly hates, he has said, “I think his efforts to destroy Social Security were very bad,” and, “He’s done his very best to destroy Medicare.” Bush might have a different interpretation of his attempted reforms of those programs.

And if New York Times reporters thought Reid “soft-spoken” in 2004, they have to have changed their minds since.

You can expect Reid to be a proud legislative warrior for President Obama. In early February, he was talking about a group of moderate senators who balked at the stimulus package, and wanted to modify it. He said, “They cannot hold the president of the United States hostage.” You did not hear him talk this way when Bush was president. In those days, he was a ferocious check-and-balancer.

Reid’s is one of the great up-from-nothing stories in American politics. He was born in Searchlight, Nev. (and that is one of the great placenames in America). He does not mind calling attention to that fact: Call up his office and you get a recording that says, “Hello, this is Sen. Harry Reid of Searchlight, Nevada.” Things were pretty tough for the young man in Searchlight. His father was an alcoholic miner; his mother took in laundry from a bordello. On at least one occasion, Harry and his brother had to keep their father from beating their mother. Eventually, the father committed suicide.

There was never much money in the house. Sears catalogues served as toilet paper. Harry hitchhiked a long way to school, and there he was taught history, and how to box, by a man named Mike O’Callaghan. O’Callaghan would become governor of Nevada; his protégé, Reid, would serve as lieutenant governor under him.

#page# In light of Reid’s hardscrabble background, it was especially interesting to read of a little scandal in 2006: Reid had used campaign donations to give Christmas bonuses to the doormen in his Washington building. And what building was that? The Ritz-Carlton. Moreover, only a Democratic leader, you might say, could get away with living at the Ritz. A Republican would be skewered as baldly plutocratic.

Reid attended Southern Utah State College and Utah State University. In this period, he joined the Mormon church. He once said to an interviewer, “I think it is much easier to be a good member of the church and a Democrat than a good member of the church and a Republican.” Reid paints Republicans the way Dickens paints Oliver Twist’s workhouse. After college, it was law school, at George Washington University in D.C. Reid did some more boxing in those years, and he worked for the Capitol Police. There must be very few alumni of the Capitol Police in Congress.

Back in Nevada, he rose in politics. First came the state assembly, and then that stint as lieutenant governor. Later, he was head of the “Gaming” Commission, and mobsters threatened his life: His wife found a bomb attached to their car. A character in the movie Casino is based in part on Reid. In 1982, he was elected to the U.S. House, and, four years later, he finally went to the Senate.

It’s interesting to review news accounts of Reid, at the time his colleagues elected him minority leader. He was thought of as a moderate Mormon politician from the West (a long way from a Nancy Pelosi twin). Sen. Dianne Feinstein said, “I believe very strongly that the voice of the moderates of our caucus ought to have some sway. I have noticed in the past that all the gravitas has slid to the left. All one has to do is look at the map to know that you can’t win a presidential election that way.” And “if we keep going on this way, we’ll be a minority party.”

Mitch McConnell — the future Republican leader in the Senate — said, “I am a big fan of his,” meaning Reid’s. It is safe to assume that McConnell is a less big fan now. And the New York Times did something highly interesting: Noting that Reid was “close to Mr. Bush,” it reported that the senator had nevertheless said “he would not let his closeness to the president affect the way he deals with him.” Before long, Reid would call Bush a “liar” and a “loser.” (He called him a loser in a discussion with high-school students!) And he would say, repeatedly, that Bush was the worst president in American history.

He delighted the leftmost reaches of the Democratic party all the way around — in the way he talked, in the way he voted, in the way he led. He became a darling of Daily Kos and MoveOn.org. Byron York documented this meticulously in a report for this magazine two years ago (“Wild about Harry”). I will give you a sample of the modern-day Reid: “Coal makes us sick. Oil makes us sick. It’s global warming. It’s ruining our country. It’s ruining our world.”

An English-language amendment to the Constitution is “racist.” Justice Thomas is an “embarrassment” whose opinions are “poorly written.” (Who told Reid that? Certainly no one who had read Thomas’s opinions — or knew about writing.) About Iraq, Reid said, in April 2007, “This war is lost, and the surge is not accomplishing anything.” He also allowed, “We’re going to pick up Senate seats as a result of this war. Senator Schumer has shown me numbers that are compelling and astounding.” (Chuck Schumer was in charge of Democratic Senate campaigns.) That statement was jarringly naked, predicting political gains from an agonizing war. In any case, for whatever reason, the Democrats did indeed pick up seats.

Reid can be disarmingly frank, even when he steps in it — or especially when he steps in it. He commented on the new Capitol Visitors Center, and its air conditioning. You remember? “My staff tells me not to say this, but I’m going to say it anyway: In the summer, because of the heat and high humidity, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol.” A lot of us smiled over that “My staff tells me not to say this, but . . .”

#page# And he can be downright puzzling and odd. Two years ago, Rush Limbaugh blasted “phony soldiers,” meaning, people who pretended to have been in Iraq but were not. Reid, evidently misunderstanding him, called him “unpatriotic.” He also got 40 other Democratic senators to sign a letter denouncing Limbaugh. In a typically imaginative move, Limbaugh obtained the letter: and auctioned it on eBay. He got $2.1 million for it, and chipped in that same amount himself. The money went to the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation, which provides scholarships to children of the fallen.

In the middle of all this, Reid took to the Senate floor — and kind of took credit for acting in concert with Rush, to benefit these children. “I strongly believe that when we can put our differences aside, even Harry Reid and Rush Limbaugh, we should do that and try to accomplish good things for the American people.” You will seldom see something so brazen, so audacious, and so galling, even in politics.

Reid has friends on the Republican side of the aisle — most conspicuously, his fellow Nevada senator, John Ensign (whom Reid once beat in an extremely close race). Other Republican senators have ambivalent feelings about Reid. One senator says, “He’s a little bit of a Jekyll and Hyde: your best pal one minute, excoriating you the next.” But most Republicans are not ambivalent, and there is, in fact, a GOP consensus about Reid. It is a sharply negative one. The majority leader himself declined to be interviewed for this article. But Republican senators and their staffers talked freely — if mainly off the record — and their consensus is this:

Reid is acting as an instrument of the Democratic Left, unwilling to negotiate and cut deals. He is as partisan as Dodd, Kennedy, Leahy, and all the others you associate with hard partisanship. He is unusually thin-skinned, and he blows his stack more than a Senate leader really should. He shows signs of “small-man syndrome”: putting his dukes up, spoiling for a fight, having to prove something. He scraps and scrapes when some diplomacy is in order. If reading from a script, he does fine. But when he goes off script — he’s a disaster for the Democrats, making gaffes and causing controversies.

And all of this (continues the consensus) is good for the Republicans. He is not an effective leader for the Democrats. He is too touchy, too blundering, too alienating. He can win ugly, as he did in the recent stimulus fight, now that he has all those votes. But what if some finesse is needed?

One of the wisest things I heard from a senator, in collecting opinion about Reid, was, “He is who his party wants him to be.” The Democratic party is in a left-wing, arrogant, and aggressive mood. And they are, of course, winning, giving them little incentive to change.

But Reid is up for reelection in 2010, and the Republicans have their eye on him. They hope to “Daschle” him, which is to say, knock off the Democratic leader. They will claim that Reid, in his big national post, has slid to the left of Nevada, just as Daschle slid to the left of South Dakota. Harry Reid will have plenty of money, and he is nothing if not dogged. But he is far from a sure thing. One savvy Republican puts it this way: “If 2010 is a favorable year for the Democrats, he’ll survive. But if it turns out that Obama is leaking oil, Harry could be in big trouble.” In the meantime, he will be strong on the scene, one of the Democrats’ three kings, not the most glamorous, but an American original, and a peppery, pugilistic little so-and-so.

 

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