Thursday, February 16, 2006

Red-State Reid Sounds Like a Blue-State Leader

By Stuart Rothenberg

When Senate Democrats selected Nevada Sen. Harry Reid to be their leader, journalists and political insiders noted his red-state credentials, opposition to abortion and soft-spoken style as perfect qualities for a party seeking to broaden its appeal.

Almost immediately, a front-page New York Times story suggested that “Reid’s amiability might make it harder for the White House to demonize him.” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) compared him to TV’s Mister Rogers.

Another Senator said the new Leader would likely give voice to the party’s moderates — not a surprising conclusion given Reid’s willingness over the years to work with Republicans on everything from water issues and welfare reform to late-term abortion and flag desecration.

“He was the guy Republicans and Democrats used to praise on the floor,” one longtime Capitol Hill Democrat told me recently. “He was polite and soft-spoken.”

But now, with the Senate deeply divided along partisan lines and Reid charged with leading the fight against President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) — with whom Reid has had “a complete falling out,” according to one knowledgeable Democrat — the Nevada Senator sounds more and more like a boilerplate, blue-state Democrat.

The language of the new Reid is less measured and far nastier than that of his predecessor, Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), and the new Minority Leader is far more combative and confrontational than his recent Senate Minority Leader predecessors.

Reid has always been known for being what his friends call “tough and direct,” and what Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston has called “ruthless” and “Machiavellian.”

Reid has called Bush a “liar” and a “loser,” signed fundraising letters (for himself and for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee) that compared Republicans to “the mafia” and “the mob,” and established a “war room” in the Senate that even he has acknowledged crossed the line with personal attacks on his colleagues.

That aggressiveness inevitably raises questions about his relationship with GOP colleagues, his own electoral prospects should he seek a fifth term in 2010 and his effectiveness for his party.

Republicans generally see Reid’s aggressive style as an effort to satisfy his more liberal Democratic colleagues in the Senate.

“He’s the leader of a very left-wing caucus. He’s surrounded by [Sens. Edward] Kennedy [Mass., Charles] Schumer [N.Y.] and Dick Durbin [Ill.]. He has to get re-elected, so he’s got to be the spokesman for his constituents — his constituents in the Senate,” one Republican told me.

While that is true, Reid — who has been in the Leader’s job for just more than a year and lacks the close relationship that Daschle had with some senior Members — is no mere tool of his party’s left. Instead, he appears to be adapting to his role of Minority Leader at a time when Democrats are both frustrated after repeated election defeats and emboldened at the sight of the president’s political weakness.

Supporters of the Senator strongly dispute any idea that Reid has had a style makeover. They insist that he hasn’t changed from his years growing up in the tiny mining town he regularly references, Searchlight, Nev.

“He has never shied away from a fight. He has always had a give ’em hell Harry style,” argued one Capitol Hill operative. “He has been a street-fighter since he was a little kid,” said another Democrat.

One Democratic Capitol Hill insider may not be far off in arguing that Reid’s recent habit of being particularly combative stems from a desire to compensate for qualities that he lacks.

“Sen. Reid has a tendency to make the rhetoric hotter because he isn’t naturally an effective speaker,” the Democrat argued. “Of course, the base and the grass roots are demanding a much more in-your-face style.”

Has Reid paid a price on Capitol Hill for his aggressiveness? While some veteran Republicans insist that he has, or will, it is hard to find instances in which Republicans have punished him for his aggressiveness. Given the way the Senate conducts business, they are forced to deal with him.

Reid’s close relationship with Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) remains intact, according to a Republican Senate operative familiar with the two Senators. Ensign was “quite concerned” when he heard about a Reid memo criticizing Republican colleagues by name, but the Minority Leader apologized publicly (saying that he had not seen it before it was distributed and that he rejected its characterizations) as well as personally to Ensign. The Nevada Republican readily accepted.

If the Minority Leader does pay a price for his new confrontational approach, it could be at home. While allies of the Senator insist that he continues to tend to state interests, unreleased Republican polling shows Reid’s “unfavorables” are up significantly, particularly among Republicans, who not surprisingly see him as more partisan. Of course, Reid, 66, isn’t up for re-election until 2010, so his electoral prospects are not of immediate concern.

Reid has always been direct to the point of bluntness. He has always been partisan, even though he sometimes worked with and voted with Republicans. He’s always been tough. But over the past year, Reid has sounded nasty, even mean. That is likely to both undercut his usefulness to his own party and to lead Republicans down the same nasty, intemperate path over the next few years.

Is that what Harry Reid really wants?

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 13, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.