“I want to be able to go out at the top of my game,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told the New York Times’ upon announcing his retirement on Friday. “I don’t want to be a 42-year-old trying to become a designated hitter.”
Too late for that. Senate Democrats, under Harry Reid’s watch, fell into the minority, the result of poor leadership and partisan politicking. President Obama’s polarizing tenure is much to blame, but Reid’s combative approaching and unwillingness to reach across the aisle no doubt played a larger part.
Reid was known as a scheming tactician. Sometimes it worked. In the 2010 elections Reid’s PAC spent vast sums of cash in the Republican primaries in an effort to winnow out the most dangerous challengers before they even got to the general election. As a result Republicans were left with candidates with enormous liabilities that shone through as the clock ticked closer to Election Day.
But his recent schemes haven’t worked nearly as well.
“Reid loves to meddle in other races, especially when it involves him. I dubbed him the meddler in chief many years ago, though he’s much more adept in meddling in his own races than the outside ones,” veteran Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston told National Journal. “He thinks he knows better than any political consultant, and he doesn’t trust the polls.”
The lowlight of this meddling came last year when Reid orchestrated the appointment of Sen. Max Baucus to become U.S. ambassador to China so that Reid’s anointed replacement—John Walsh—would have time to boost his name recognition before the election. The move backfired after Walsh was forced to withdraw from the race after he was accused of plagiarizing his thesis for the Army War College.
Reid’s micromanagement was also evident in the way he ran the Senate.
His primary trick was to prevent Republicans from offering any amendments that might prove politically difficult for Democrats. His main tool is an arcane maneuver called “filling the tree,” a process whereby the Majority Leader can fill up the slots on each bill for amendments with intentionally insubstantial changes. Senator Reid used the tactic over 80 times. By comparison, the previous six Majority Leaders filled the tree a total of 49 times combined.
Increasingly, Democrats also bristled at Reid’s tightfisted grip on the Senate calendar.
“We never get a shot at anything,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told POLITICO. “I’ve been very direct with Harry about that: I think it’s wrong. We didn’t do anything.”
Indeed, they didn’t. Several freshman senators, like Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, was hammered on the campaign trail because he never got a single roll call vote on one of his amendments.
Reid’s grip on the Senate didn’t loosen, even after his party was relegated to the minority. If anything, his zealous partisanship only increased, which stood out all the more because of the bipartisan progress being made on numerous pieces of legislation. As Ron Fournier wrote in the National Journal earlier this week:
If Democrats still hope to brand Republicans in Congress as the stubborn cause of gridlock, they must address a major headache. This problem also threatens the party’s courtship of anti-special-interest populists. It undermines their claim to be champions of the poor.
The Democratic Party has a Harry Reid problem.
The Senate minority leader is threatening to block or otherwise undo a bipartisan, long-term plan to finance health care for older Americans, pay doctors who accept Medicare, and extend vital health care programs for children and the poor.
What is remarkable is Reid’s chutzpah. At a time when most voters are demanding bipartisan results from a Congress with record-low favorability, when President Obama barely lets a day pass without raising legitimate concerns over GOP obstruction, Reid stands ready to kill a deal between House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Perhaps Reid finally grasped that politics had passed him by. Perhaps he couldn’t adjust to life in the minority. Perhaps he knew he was likely to lose in 2018. Whatever the reason it’s safe to say that Harry Reid isn’t going out on top.