Responding to Friday’s surprise announcement that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has decided to retire, President Obama said, “the Senate will not be the same without him.”
We can only hope so.
Reid, D-Nev., shook up the Senate hierarchy with his declaration that he will not seek re-election in 2016. He did not blame lingering health effects from a January accident for his about-face, since he had previously said he would run for another term, and he denied it was due to his demotion to minority leader after last year’s elections. But he did express a desire not to linger past his own usefulness. Unspoken, but also likely on his mind, is the fact that he would have faced a daunting election campaign to hold a seat that he narrowly retained against a weak opponent in 2010, and which the GOP again considered ripe for takeover. Many Democrats also believe someone else from their party would have a better chance of winning than would Reid.
Reid has served five Senate terms, and that has been more than enough. He made the Senate, and the country, smaller and meaner. He did not just reflect his times; he was a catalyst for what his times became.
Thanks to Reid, and especially his interactions with and frequent dominance of Obama, not only do we lack a nuclear waste disposal facility in Nevada, but we appear to have given no thought whatsoever during the Obama presidency to how to deal with nuclear waste in the future. It was largely pressure from Reid that pushed Obama to take Yucca Mountain off the table back in 2009, without any viable alternative in place. While Obama said a better solution was necessary, the country is still waiting to hear what a better solution might look like. Neither the president nor Reid has offered one.
Thanks to Reid, private citizens like the Koch brothers know that they can be demonized and belittled on the floor of the U.S. Senate merely because they choose to participate in public debate while retaining their private-sector livelihoods. Reid’s congressional speech and debate privilege immunized him against defamation charges, as long as he saved his attacks for legislative sessions. Mitt Romney also experienced Reid’s proclivity to lie, dissemble and vilify, as when Reid claimed (false) knowledge of Romney’s tax returns in 2012. This tendency to resort to personal attack is of a piece with the prevailing mode of operations in his party, but Reid has happily occupied a place in the vanguard for much of his Senate career.
Reid’s vitriol has also veered into hypocrisy, as the most recent election cycle demonstrated. Reid and his fellow Democrats have loudly protested undisclosed campaign contributions, which they often term “dark money,” and have theatrically introduced doomed legislation to underline their point. Yet a super-PAC organized by Reid’s own former political advisers quietly sent money to a nominally independent candidate in Kansas, using anonymity to try to avoid discrediting his claims of independence from Reid and the Democrats. It was a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful bid to protect Reid’s power base as majority leader. Kansas voters saw through the scheme and handily gave the seat to the GOP.
Also thanks to Reid, we can look forward to presidential appointments other than for the Supreme Court to barrel through Congress on a simple majority vote whenever the president’s party happens to control the Senate. Reid triggered the so-called “nuclear option,” claiming that Republicans forced his hand. This is quite likely to backfire on Democrats if a Republican moves into the White House in 2017 while the GOP maintains Senate control.
And while Reid cannot take full credit or blame for the snarled mess resulting from the Affordable Care Act, his legacy will doubtless be caught up in the law’s fallout, given his central role in getting the law passed. At the time, Reid’s efforts to hang on to liberal votes while offering compromises to centrists were seen as key to the Senate’s adoption of the bill. In the years following, as problems cropped up, Reid fell back on doing what he knew how to do best: When in doubt, attack the Koch brothers and others who opposed him.
We may or may not get a better senator from Nevada after Reid is gone, but we’re likely to be a better country without him in the government. His replacement, who at first glance seems likely to be New York’s Sen. Charles Schumer (whose political style blends camera-hogging hype and subterranean deal-making but avoids confrontation), could hardly make things worse.