WASHINGTON – NASA scientists may have noticed a wobble in Earth’s axis Tuesday morning. Harry Reid, the irascible top Democrat in the Senate, had shown contrition.
The day before, Reid had attacked the integrity of Republicans, including the majority whip, John Cornyn, suggesting they were doing the bidding of the billionaire Koch brothers.
But Tuesday, Reid began his daily remarks to the Senate by declaring that “I want everyone to know that my criticism of the senior senator from Texas is not based on anything dealing with his character, his integrity.”
Cornyn rose to express his “gratitude.”
And then, as quickly as it had begun, the feel-good moment was over. A McClatchy reporter asked Reid about his remorse and Reid said “with great irritation” that he hadn’t apologized. “He didn’t ask for an apology, and he didn’t expect an apology,” Reid snapped.
Being Harry Reid means never having to say you’re sorry. The former boxer and cop, retiring in January, is departing the Senate the way he led it: with ferocious partisanship and explosive language.
On the same day he gave his non-apology to Cornyn, he also suggested that Donald Trump is fat: “Take a look at this character that’s running for president. . He’s not slim and trim. He brags about eating fast food every day.”
In the same news conference, Reid offered some violent imagery to describe Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) as she negotiated a spending package with Republicans: “You could put a gun to her head right now and she can’t tell you what they’re trying to come up with.”
Just before returning to Washington from his summer break, Reid sat down with the Reno Gazette-Journal, saying it was “crazy” of Patricia Smith, whose son was killed in Benghazi, to blame Hillary Clinton. He also described Rep. Joe Heck, the Republican candidate to succeed him in the Senate, as “the most fraudulent person” he’s known in 50 years of politics.
And Reid defended the false allegation he made in 2012 that Mitt Romney had not paid taxes for 10 years. “I’d do it again,” Reid said. He reasoned that it’s one of his strengths to “tell the truth,” then added, “Maybe not the truth – it’s how I feel.”
I’ve enjoyed covering Reid and will miss him when he’s gone. His wild rhetoric made for good copy. But in this Age of Trump, I also wonder whether Reid’s style – insults, insinuations and sometimes false allegations – helped to clear the way for worse.
To be sure, Trump is a uniquely Republican problem, created by years of GOP coddling of extremists. But I can’t help thinking Reid is one who deserves some blame for the deterioration of discourse that numbed the country to Trump’s vulgarity.
Reid has suggested that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with whom he must work every day, “agrees with Trump’s view that women are dogs and pigs.” He’s accused Republicans of being “drunk with power,” “puppets,” “amateurish” and “cowards” who are led by “crazies.”
George W. Bush, in Reid’s telling, was a “loser” and a “liar” who “betrayed the country.” Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan was a “hack” and a “fraud,” and the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission “unethical, prevaricating,” “a treacherous miserable liar,” a “first-class rat” and a “tool.”
Reid got in trouble for praising Obama as a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” He described Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as a “snake oil” salesman. He likened opponents of Obamacare to defenders of slavery.
Long before Trump’s campaign, Reid said that “I don’t know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican.” He joked to an Asian audience, “One problem that I’ve had today is keeping my Wongs straight.” He has instructed the American Bar Association to “get a new life,” advised a reporter to “get a brain” and asked another journalist whether she spoke English, suggesting she “turn up your Miracle Ear.”
Reid shows no sign of easing into retirement. He walked onto the Senate floor Wednesday with a wooden cane and, peering at his speech through black horn-rimmed spectacles, proceeded through his daily denunciation of the Republicans. He accused them (“the party of Trump, whose pal is Putin”) of trying to establish an “oligarchy.” From there he went on to host a photo op where he derided news photographers as a “mob” and to hold a news conference where he accused Senate Republicans of a “ploy.” The bile was bountiful – and it was only lunchtime.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.