WASHINGTON – Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is an acquired taste. It may surprise people outside of his Democratic caucus that many of his colleagues will miss him. But they will.
Charismatic he is not. He sometimes stumbles in his choice of words, and utterly fails a series of other Beltway tests. For example, our era claims to revere authenticity but prefers contrived personalities that seem warm and solicitous. Reid refuses to try to be someone he isn’t – I doubt he could pull it off even if he wanted to – and gets little credit for being resolutely himself.
There is a vogue for admiring Lyndon Johnson’s take-no-prisoners canniness as a legislative leader. But there is actually an unacknowledged tilt in our media and political culture toward politicians who wrap the knives they wield in political battles with velvet. Harry Reid isn’t into velvet and he also doesn’t pander very well to journalists. We like being pandered to, even though we don’t admit it. Reid has no compunction about picking up the phone and issuing a scolding when he dislikes something he sees in print.
But there is a big upside to Reid’s approach, which is candor. Reid grew up in difficult circumstances in a tough little mining town called Searchlight, Nevada. I once asked him if he’d go back there when he retired. “Have you ever been to Searchlight?” he replied, suggesting that no one in his right mind would aspire to such a thing. Asked and answered.
In many of the accounts since Reid announced on Friday that he would not be running for re-election, his power has been explained in part by his capacity as a listener who understood his colleagues and their needs. That’s true.
Democrats also realized that having a former boxer with a pugilistic personality at the helm was absolutely essential in the face of a Republican Party that had moved sharply to the right. It picked up from the House that Newt Gingrich built in the 1990s a far more partisan and combative approach to legislating.
The Senate, in its self-importance, loves to characterize itself as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” But veterans of the Gingrich House steadily made their way to the Senate’s Republican ranks and brought a new style with them. The differences between the two bodies shrank.
Reid took over the Democratic leadership after the 2004 elections that saw the defeat of his predecessor, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the first majority leader to lose his seat since 1952. Daschle was a loyal partisan, but his style was more that of the older Senate. Reid did deals across party lines where he could, but he knew the place had changed and he acted accordingly.
One problem was the explosion of the filibuster. Democrats aren’t entirely innocent here. But the routinization of the filibuster was primarily a Republican innovation after the Democrats took back the Senate in the 2006 midterm elections (a victory Reid helped engineer).
A study by Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, showed that use of the filibuster spiked in 2007 and 2008 (and it’s gone up since). While 8 percent of legislation in the 1960s was subject to “extended-debate-related problems,” 70 percent of the major bills in 2007-2008 encountered those challenges.
Reid dealt with the Senate he had, not the Senate he wished he had. His glory years will be the short window of 2009-2010 when Democrats held both houses and the presidency and he managed to push through landmark bills, including the Affordable Care Act and Wall Street reform. He did so with an ideologically diverse caucus for which the cliche about herding cats does a disservice to how relatively organized felines are.
And pressed by impatient younger colleagues, Reid took the first steps to fixing the filibuster by making it easier to confirm executive appointees and lower court judges. Reid resisted the sentimentality of those who bemoaned an end to “Senate traditions” because he knew those traditions were already dead. He will be remembered as a modernizing realist.
And the miner’s son from Searchlight is the kind of person Democrats insist they represent but with whom they have great trouble talking these days.
Reid is the working-class kid from a very hard background who had to fight his way up. You might say that in Reid’s party, the Smooth Deal has replaced the New Deal. Reid could never be mistaken for a Smooth Dealer, and this is why I’ll miss him, too.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.