Harry Reid, Political Thug and Long-Serving Majority Leader in the Senate
It was an attempt to provoke Harry Reid’s office. For a trade publication called SNL Financial, with headquarters in Charlottesville, Va., I was working as a banking reporter in the spring of 2008. A business journal in a sleepy college town didn’t get much attention from Senate Democrats, especially when the name sounded comical.
Desperate to get Reid on the record, I spent the day baiting anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. If not me, then maybe a semi-famous Republican would compel Reid’s office to respond. After all, I could get them on the phone and talk about the financial crisis, I figured.
Oh to be young. “Well Zach Carter, you tell Grover Norquist that Harry Reid says he can go f—- himself,” Reid’s spokesperson Jim Manley said, in a tone that suggested he would feel little remorse if I did the same. Then he dropped the call. Dejected, I spent the rest of the day analyzing foreclosure data. But readers interested in banking policy should ignore the quote.
From thousands of conversations with politicians and staffers over the years, this was the first time I realized Harry Reid was not the man I thought he was. I didn’t mind making inflammatory calls to Harry Reid’s office back then because I disliked him at the time.
He embodied everything that was wrong with the Democratic Party and American politics. Reid voted twice for major financial deregulation at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, leading to the 2008 financial crisis. We ended up having more troops in Iraq after Reid became minority leader during George W. Bush’s presidency.
In his unlikely biography, he mentions boxing, brothels, and mob murder plots. Not everyone who grows up poor goes to Washington to deregulation banks.
If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that I’ve since changed my mind I admired Reid because he was flawed, as all politicians must be. There has never been a more effective moral or strategic leader in my lifetime than Harry Reid. When a losing fight could not be avoided, Reid fought valiantly for a moral victory, even if it meant losing the election.
Lesser-known legislative accomplishments, such as the Affordable Care Act and the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, do not fully capture Reid’s influence Workers valued Reid more for the bad things he stopped than the good. Reid blocked the Bush plan to privatize Social Security when he became Democratic Senate leader in 2005.
Ari Rabin-Havt, a former Reid aide who advised Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), recalls how Reid did the Michael Corleone — his offer was nothing. Reid refused to negotiate with Bush on Social Security and held a caucus full of conservative Democrats — including Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark. ), Mark Pryor (D-Ark. ), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) — united against the Bush plan, when the progressive blogosphere was still in its infancy. They won, and Bush’s presidency began to fall apart.
Reid’s willingness to rebuke them when their moral compasses were misplaced is conveniently forgotten in the flood of well-meaning tributes from Democratic lawmakers since his death. With Obama’s presidency in jeopardy, Reid’s legacy includes an early and unwavering alliance with him.
After taking office, Obama’s top priority was to reach a “Grand Bargain” with Republicans to reduce the federal budget deficit. The plan was simple: cut Social Security and Medicare while raising taxes on the wealthy. If Republicans agreed it was time to “eat our peas,” he would challenge his own party’s “sacred cows”.
Obama believed that the poor and elderly were as responsible for reducing debt as the wealthy and tax-avoidant. America’s economic losers would have to share sacrifices with the winners.
Afraid of George W. Bush, Reid would not cut Social Security for Barack Obama. Years of battling the president’s fiscal idiocy Reid reasoned that taxing the wealthy would help reduce the deficit. Cutting workers’ pay would be a moral and political sin, especially during a long and hard recession.
Republican intervenors saved Reid the trouble of taking a dramatic public stand, which he did not always do. A Grand Bargain is not going to happen, according to Reid, who stated publicly in 2013. Not having it has never been a problem. Since Obama’s election, the national debt has roughly tripled, with no apparent consequences.
We can learn just as much about Reid from his losses as his wins. Reid was ecstatic when the Bush tax cuts finally ended in 2012. Republicans would be eager to cut taxes wherever they could once rates rose for everyone. A deal was more important to Obama than a number (despite his insistence on deficit reduction).
A clear attempt to avoid the Senate’s top Democrat, he sent then-Vice President Joe Biden to the office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell While Biden preserved the Bush tax cuts for those earning up to $400,000, he also set the stage for another round of budget cuts in two months. Afraid of the administration’s concessions, Reid threw the list into his office fireplace, telling every Washington publication about it.
Reid understood that in politics, you had to make the best of a bad situation. If it prevented a worse situation than the deal could create, then compromise was acceptable. Preparation for lucky moments was a big part of work. Those were the times when you took the win and ran. Reid saw a distinction between serving Beltway comity and serving working people’s interests.
Not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good while I shovel this money to a big bank, most politicians use compromise as an excuse to engage in corrupt behavior. The demands of big money didn’t exempt Reid. To defend the integrity of ultra-right-winger Sheldon Adelson from charges that his political influence was as corrosive as the Koch brothers, he went to court on behalf of Las Vegas casinos.
But he was tactful. Foreclosures on MGM and other Las Vegas properties supported thousands of jobs in his home state during the financial crisis. Sure, he was protecting local interests, but Fed Chair Jerome Powell has been praised for his handling of the 2020 coronavirus crash.
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In addition to Adam Jentleson, Ari Rabin-Havt, Kristen Orthman, Josh Orton, and Faiz Shakir, many other progressives who have gone on to work for Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as progressive organizations, began their careers in Reid’s office as interns or interns.
On behalf of working people when other senators might have advised restraint in the name of message discipline and corporate fundraising, Reid elevated both Sanders and Warren’s profiles during his Senate tenure.
Reid was never an outsider, only an insider He frequently disagreed with Sanders and Warren on policy points. A rarity among insiders, he regarded elevating outsiders’ voices as critical to refocusing the caucus. It’s unlikely that Sanders will ever call Reid a corporate sellout, but don’t hold your breath.
Unlike other Democratic leaders, Reid understood class politics intuitively. As a child of poverty, Reid easily identified with the stories of people who didn’t look like him. Worker-friendly Democrats abound; Reid got it. From my vantage point, he never lost sight of who his insider moves were meant to help.
What Reid would have done with the Democratic caucus over the last three years is unknown. Then again, President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have outperformed him in a 50-50 Senate. In 2020, perhaps Reid could have led a better campaign that resulted in a bigger majority.
A Republican billionaire was asked to build a new casino in Morgantown, West Virginia, to win over Manchin. Leaders who are truly great think of things others do not. Someone could have saved Biden’s agenda, but Reid wouldn’t have let it sit in the Senate for eight months, right up until an election.
The same Jim Manley who had dismissed me over the phone in 2008 came to show me around the Capitol in the winter of 2010-2011. That phone call went horribly wrong, and he went into great detail about why.
A public spat with a conservative ideologue can be beneficial, he said. But it’s not always useful. Notify and move on if you see no benefit. Speak your mind, even if no one reads the article. Jim is a gem, it turns out. But not if it’s pointless. His boss is in the same position.