Sens. Harry Reid (left) and Chuck Schumer. Photo courtesy the Senate Democrats on Flickr.
The United States Senate produces plenty of forgettable mediocrities, but also some memorably brilliant members with names like Mansfield and Fulbright and Kennedy (take your pick).
It also occasionally produces a stinker whose odor lingers long after that individual’s departure. We still remember Joseph McCarthy and Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms. Harry Reid, who until this week led the Senate Democrats for the past decade, deserves to be in this latter category.
His own party is not yet ready to admit the stench, however. Reid was feted last week by his fellow Democrats as he said farewell to the Senate. Vice President Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton both delivered tributes at a ceremony to unveil Reid’s new Capitol Hill portrait; Clinton praised his work passing “landmark legislation,” and Biden expressed personal affection for his longtime colleague. New York’s Sen. Chuck Schumer, who will step into Reid’s shoes as the new minority leader, said, “I am telling you there is no one, no one, no one, better to have in your corner.”
Reid also received a polite send-off from his Republican counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who safely stuck to topics like their shared love of baseball and Reid’s devotion to his wife, Landra. McConnell only briefly mentioned their differences in political outlook, which are to be expected, as well as their differences in approach, in which McConnell’s is that of a Senate traditionalist while Reid’s was more like that of the Unabomber.
It was, of course, Reid who invoked the so-called “nuclear option” to force President Barack Obama’s trial and appellate-level judicial nominees and executive-branch leadership picks through the Senate over Republican objections. That decision is apt to blow up in Democrats’ faces as newly elected President Donald Trump sends similarly partisan choices to the Senate, where 48 or 49 Democrats will now be powerless to stop them.
Moreover, Reid has opened a door through which the GOP can freely waltz to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nomination (or possibly nominations), and even to pass ordinary legislation over Democrats’ filibusters. Realizing his error too late, Reid cautioned his fellow Democrats in his valedictory not to use their filibuster too often, lest it be taken away. At the same time, in a recent interview with Politico, Reid argued that it was the right thing to do, raising the question of whether he has realized it was an error at all.
But Reid wouldn’t have earned his lowly future status merely by being a bad tactician. He earned contempt by being a bully and a liar. As I have previously written, Reid had no qualms about using his libel-proof congressional floor privileges to attack ordinary American citizens – notably the Koch brothers – merely for participating in political discourse.
And who can forget Reid’s lies during the 2012 presidential campaign, in which he claimed to have personal knowledge that Republican nominee Mitt Romney had paid no income taxes for the decade prior. “Tail Gunner Joe” McCarthy claimed similar personal knowledge of communist spies in the State Department, with an equally nonexistent factual basis.
Reid’s greatest hits also included pressuring Obama into scrapping the proposed nuclear waste facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, in exchange for unflinching support. The American people are still waiting on a viable alternative to Yucca Mountain, but Obama got that support; of the president’s 12 vetoes, all but two happened in the last two years of his second term. Before that, no House-passed legislation the president might dislike had a prayer of making it past the Senate to his desk. Once the Republicans regained the Senate majority in 2014, however, they were quick to turn the tables, as demonstrated by the dead-on-arrival nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.
Perhaps the best thing to happen to Democrats in this election season was Reid’s decision to retire. This not only allows Schumer to step into Reid’s leadership role, at which he can hardly fare worse; it also enabled Reid to help install a Democratic successor in his own Nevada seat, which was one of the very few bright spots for his party in last month’s dismal Election Day results.
Reid took control of a narrow Senate majority in 2006, and was subsequently handed a filibuster-proof margin in Obama’s 2008 wave. He promptly joined forces with his House counterpart, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to enact a breathtakingly partisan and one-sided legislative program whose highlight was the Affordable Care Act. Voters responded by practically exiling Democrats from the House, where their margins have shrunk to near-historic lows. They echoed that preference at the state level across the country, where Democrats are just a rump presence outside their strongholds in the Northeast and the West Coast.
Republican incompetence allowed Reid’s Senate Democrats to hold their majority until 2014, when they, too, were cast out. A golden opportunity to regain control in 2016 slipped through Reid’s fingers, and now his party faces a highly unfavorable map in 2018. So this is a good time for Reid to retire, although I think you could reasonably say that about any time up to this point too.
There is no reason to bear Reid any personal ill-will, however. Enjoy a long and healthy retirement, Harry – and don’t let the door hit you on your way out.