Having lost the majority after the 2014 election, suffering a gruesome injury that nearly cost him sight in one eye, and facing another bruising re-election campaign in Nevada, it’s not a huge surprise that 75-year old Senator Harry Reid, a fixture in Senate leadership for more than a decade, decided that he will hang it up when his term ends next year.
As a young man Reid was a decent boxer and throwing punches with wild abandon is an appropriate metaphor for Reid’s pugnacious tenure as a Senate leader. Reid has been an unapologetic partisan. He has made it his personal cause to expose the Koch brothers influence on American politics and Reid accused Mitt Romney, with no real evidence, of paying no taxes during the last presidential campaign. That attack line alone messed up a week of Romney’s campaign.
Reid is also something of a political contradiction. A practicing Mormon, Reid has been a huge champion of Nevada’s glittering gaming industry. His LDS faith certainly didn’t keep him from savaging fellow Mormon Romney in a fashion that made Barack Obama’s attack lines seem tame by comparison. Reid has also championed the mining industry inside a political party where digging things up is considered bad form. All politics is local, after all, and gambling and mining make Nevada go and as for Reid’s brand of politics – once a brawler, always a brawler.
Charisma challenged, not an eloquent speaker, never one to frequent the Sunday morning green rooms that are the natural habitat of Washington’s gasbags, Reid is in many ways a throwback, an often parochial senator from Nevada who will also leave a substantial mark on American political history. His fighting instincts, as well as the political times, made Reid one of the most partisan Senate leaders in a long, long time and he certainly deserves a big dose of responsibility for the toxic levels of American political discourse. Reid has both lamented and contributed to the new norm – the politics of obstruction.
Still, love him or hate him – and there are many in both camps – Reid will, I believe, figure prominently in Senate history both for his longevity in leadership and, love it or hate it, for at least five things that might not have happened without him.
The Power of Harry…
First, without Reid’s statewide political organization it is questionable that Obama would have carried Nevada in 2008 and 2012. Look at the Nevada map. It is mostly red, but Reid’s political influence rests heavy in the state’s population centers – Las Vegas and Reno. These cities and their suburbs are where Reid has won his elections in Nevada and where Obama won, as well. In the currency of electoral politics, Harry Reid delivered Nevada for the Democratic presidential candidate – twice.
Without Reid serving as “master of the Senate” in 2009, it’s hard to believe Obama could have rounded up enough votes to pass the controversial $787 billion stimulus legislation – remember it took three Republican votes. Not a single House Republican voted for the stimulus bill, but somehow Reid crafted a degree of bi-partisanship to ensure that the legislation reached Obama’s desk.
Reid’s fingerprints are all over passage of the even more controversial Affordable Care Act (ACA). Without Harry Reid it’s unlikely that the sweeping health insurance reform legislation would have happened, since passage required that he hold every single Democratic vote in the Senate. The legislation may eventually be considered along side Social Security as a great legislative triumph or it may be shot down by the Supreme Court. Either way Harry Reid was a principle architect and that legislation alone likely cost him his job as majority leader.
Reid will also be remembered for finally taking the historic step to end the Senate filibuster, invoking the “nuclear option,” regarding most presidential appointments, particularly including federal judges. As a result, Obama has very quietly reduced the backlog of vacancies on the federal bench, including filling empty seats on the influential federal circuit court for the District of Columbia. That court, considered second only to the Supreme Court in importance, has shifted under Obama from being dominated by the appointees of Republican presidents to one with a majority of judges selected by Democrats. Reid certainly also gets some of the credit for ensuring that two more women were confirmed to the Supreme Court.
Just Say No to Yucca Mountain…
Finally, when tallying Reid’s legacy it’s impossible not to note his singular role in putting sand in the gears of national nuclear waste policy. Reid has fiercely opposed the long-time federal government plan to develop a high-level nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain north of Las Vegas. His unrelenting opposition helped convince the Obama Administration to quit work on the project, leaving the nation without any plan to dispose of the vast amounts of nuclear waste that remain scattered around the country.
A Limited Number of Great Leaders…
I would argue that since the post was formally established in the 1920’s there have been very few truly great and effective Senate leaders. Any list of “masters of the Senate” must, of course, include Lyndon Johnson whose bigger-than-life style and mastery of the personal politics of the institution in the 1950’s have never been matched.
Montana’s Mike Mansfield, still the longest serving majority leader, would be on any list of greats and for reasons opposite those that put Johnson is on the list. Where Lyndon bullied, blustered and begged senators to his will, Mansfield was the quite behind the scenes conciliator. Johnson would assault his colleagues with the full on “Johnson treatment.” A flurry of words would accompany Lyndon’s hands tugging on the lapels of a suspect’s suit, while he leaned in and physically overpowered another of his victims. As the photo makes clear he even used “the treatment” on a young John Kennedy and a stunned Scoop Jackson.
Mansfield, in contrast, puffed on his pipe, listened and tried to work things out. More often than not he succeeded, so much so that upon his death one of the Senate’s most erasable partisans, Alaska’s Ted Stevens, told me that Democrat Mansfield was the best leader the Senate had ever seen.
Considering the often ugly and almost completely unproductive Senate we see today we can fondly remember Republican leaders like Bob Dole and Howard Baker, partisans with an ability to make a deal. In the 1930’s Franklin Roosevelt depended on Joe Robinson of Arkansas to get most of his New Deal through the Senate and Robinson, always a loyal Democrat also revered by his Republican colleagues, obliged. Oregon’s Charles McNary, never in the majority, was thoughtful, cool and respected by his Senate colleagues. In many ways McNary was a model senatorial leader, particularly one having to operate in the minority.
The “wizard of ooze,” Republican Everett Dirksen of Illinois, critical to passage of historic civil rights legislation in the 1960’s, and Democrat Robert Byrd, passionate in his love of the Senate as an institution, clearly rank in the top tier of Senate leaders. But beyond that short list the pickings are pretty thin, which is why the frequently controversial Harry Reid – love him or hate him – and his accomplishments – love them or hate them – will likely ensure that he finds a place of permanent importance in the history of successful leaders of the United States Senate.
Harry Reid has been a political fighter with all the charm of an ill-tempered bull dog. His partisanship clearly contributed to the current do-nothing U.S. Senate where he has been the perfect foil to the equally charmless and partisan Mitch McConnell. Reid could put his foot in it Joe Biden-style, once calling New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand “the hottest senator” and candidate Obama “light skinned.” When asked about regrets he might harbor in his fight with the Brothers Koch, Reid simply said: “Romney didn’t win did he?”
In the age of poll tested, bland candidates who measure every word and fret over every action, political junkies are going to miss the old boxer from Searchlight, Nevada. He took a few punches, landed a few himself, and never committed the unpardonable political sin of being dull. Fighters rarely are.