The Rise of Harry Reid

If it is possible in the era of 24-hour news for a politician to be defined by a single quote, then Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid may have already uttered his signature statement. In a March 3 interview on CNN’s “Inside Politics,” Reid described Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan as “one of the biggest political hacks we have here in Washington.” While the statement was met with usual rumblings in the blogs and on the networks, it caused almost no uproar in the national media. The boldness of the recently chosen leading Senate Democrat was surprising given his moderate record, but appropriate given the current political climate. Reid normally exhibits outspoken moderation, which is emblematic of the larger uncertainty within the Democratic Party as a whole.

Head of the class

Two years ago, no member of the Democratic leadership would have uttered such a bold statement. After 9/11, many Democrats chose the path of compromise rather than forcefully oppose President George W. Bush’s agenda. The war in Iraq was a case in point. Almost all the party’s leading figures, including Senator John Kerry, voted to support the war and refrained from raising serious doubts until almost a year after the invasion began. That shift corresponded with the meteoric rise of Governor Howard Dean, whose forceful condemnation of the President and the weakened Democratic Party invigorated the party’s anti-war wing, virtually compelling leading Democrats to follow suit.

Bush’s reelection in November left the Democrats in a bind. They had to decide whether their defeat was the result of Kerry’s Dean-lite rhetoric or the product of his other shortcomings. Both conclusions suggested a definite course of action. If the vocal opposition was the problem, then the Democrats had to find a new, more moderate voice. On the other hand, if the message had simply failed to resonate, the logical solution was a more complete integration of the liberal activist wing into the party’s core.

The choice of Harry Reid initially suggested that the Democrats were leaning strongly in the direction of moderation. Selecting a pro-life, pro-gun moderate from a red state seemed to show that the Democrats had chosen to try, once again, to stake out a centrist position. Yet Reid’s selection may not have been as politically motivated as many have assumed. Stephen Hess, Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Brookings Institution, believes that Reid was chosen only because “he was in line to be chosen. No reason not to choose him. He had done his time….It is a decision that has very little to do with the questions that political journalists ask.”

Hess’s assertion that Reid’s selection was more procedural than political suggests that he may not have been chosen to lead the party in a new direction. Perhaps his selection was a function of timing rather than strategy. Yet given Reid’s record and his familiarity with Washington, his ascendance implied that the Democratic Party preferred mechanics and compromise to ideology and unilateralism.

But Reid has shown that his moderate leanings will not hamper his boldness or his assertive style of leadership. He has quickly gained a reputation as a vocal, obstructionist leader. Social Security proved to be the issue on which Reid refused to compromise. Reid and the Democratic Party as a whole maintained constant opposition to Bush’s proposals for reforming Social Security. It was over this issue that Reid criticized Greenspan. He accused Greenspan of sacrificing the obligatory nonpartisanship of the Fed in favor of supporting Bush’s programs.

While it seems that Reid and the Democrats have succeeded in killing Social Security reform, at least for the time being, they do not deserve all the credit. After all, the issue never really galvanized much support to begin with. The important lesson to take from this is that the party’s staunch opposition to compromise seems to have paid off.

Yet questions remain. Hess, for one, believes that Reid’s opposition, even in light of his record, may not be especially productive. “I don’t know what’s so distinctive about his leadership other than its being defined in negative terms…. He’s been hesitant to push an alternative agenda,” he said. This represents a serious challenge: no matter how negative and outspoken Reid is, in the end he will be judged on his successes.

Perhaps with this in mind, Reid seems to have begun addressing some of the points that led to Hess’s dismissal of him. He recently set up the Senate Democratic Communications Center, which functions as a campaign-style war room that scrupulously observes the White House and Congress. While the SDCC is devoted to Reid and his message, it also seems to be a sincere attempt to adapt the forceful, direct methods of liberal groups during the presidential campaign to the democratic wing of Congress at large.

Jim Manley, the Staff Director of the SDCC said that “as he put together his press operation, [Reid] wanted to recognize the power of the blogs [and therefore] hired a director of Internet communications.” What is notable about this forward, confrontational method is that Reid seems to be incorporating the tactics, if not the politics, of many left-wing groups.

Harry and Howard

After just a few months in his new post, this moderate pro-life senator from Nevada has more in common with Howard Dean, who is now the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, than he would like to admit. After all, Reid told theBoston Globe earlier this year that “I’m not sure Howard Dean is the answer to our problems. For right or wrong, Howard Dean is recognized as part of the left, the antiwar crowd. I’m not sure we need more acrimony.” Such a statement could do nothing but create discord between the two party leaders.

In terms of their presentation in the media, the two men could not be more different. Despite his moderate record as Governor of Vermont, Howard Dean is rarely mentioned without the adjectives “left-wing” or “anti-war.” The media have painted both men with divergent brush strokes, and have thus found it difficult to report on the pair’s recent behavior. Reid’s vocal forcefulness and Dean’s attempt to shun the spotlight in order to focus on his new position at the DNC have placed the two in new roles.

Yet these new roles have allowed them to collaborate in ways that would have seemed very unlikely in November. Manley said that Reid had “met with Dean several times. They have a good relationship. Senator Reid has been impressed with Dean’s willingness to go to the South.” Laura Gross, a spokeswoman for Governor Dean, also observed that “their styles aren’t that different. They are both honest and direct.” These two statements suggest that the two men value their own personal attributes in each other. Whether they actually do, or whether the statements are just the work of skillful communications officers who want to press the most politically expedient points, is still to be seen.

The collaboration reveals the ambiguity that still seems to overwhelm the Democratic Party. The last few months have seen the party’s most outspoken anti-war member form a coalition with Reid, initially a staunch supporter of the war. To a certain extent, both Dean and Reid are attempting to straddle the line. But Reid has a greater opportunity to mold his own image. As he noted, Dean is associated with the far left, and that perception is unlikely to change. On the other hand, Reid has only recently entered the public consciousness, and his statements and actions in the next few months will help to define his political character, be it left-wing obstructionist or centrist mechanic.

Coming up next…

Of course, Reid would like to have it both ways. He recognizes that, more than Dean, he has the burden of the party’s identity to contend with. Manley claimed that “Senator Reid’s goal is to be a forceful and strong advocate for the party.…He will work with Republicans where he can and he will oppose them [when it is right to do so].” In essence, he wants to retain the ability to refer to Greenspan as a “partisan hack” while still being labeled a moderate.

It is a complicated challenge and one in which the SDCC may play a significant role. But in the end, it will be most affected by the very language that Reid uses. What may be the most unexpected aspect of the ascendance of Harry Reid is the centrist appropriation of the left’s rhetoric. Suddenly, compromise should not sound like a midway point. Rather, in an era of fierce political competition, everything, even compromise, has come to be identified as either a total victory or an absolute defeat.

More than anything, Reid’s linguistic makeover is an indication of the ambiguity that the Democrats face. If he is willing to sound like Dean, can we expect Reid to begin using the Governor’s more divisive methods? Will this angry persona dominate, despite Reid’s moderate stance?

In truth, to accuse Reid of such a transformation would be illegitimate—he has always been known for his bluntness, even if it used to have a smaller audience. But, in light of its relentless post-9/11 centrism, followed by the rise and fall of Howard Dean and the defeat of John Kerry, the Democratic Party now straddles the tenuous line between fervent liberalism and moderation. This very debate was, is, and will continue to be the central question facing the Democrats in the near future. Yet in the end, the decision will probably rest on whether or not they have an actual policy. Reid will get to choose to speak quietly or shout loudly. But if it is without substance, his audience will be an empty room.