The first time I called Harry Reid’s office, I was trying to provoke him. It was the spring of 2008, and I was working as a banking reporter for a trade publication unhelpfully called SNL Financial and headquartered, just as unhelpfully, in Charlottesville, Va. Senate Democrats didn’t carve out a lot of time for business journals in sleepy college towns, especially if the name sounded like something from a comedy show. So I’d spent a day baiting right-wing anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist into hammering Reid on the record. Maybe Reid’s office would feel compelled to respond to a semi-famous Republican, if not to me. Once I had them on the phone, I reasoned, perhaps I could nail down something more substantive on the financial meltdown.
Oh, to be young. When I presented the quote to Reid’s spokesperson Jim Manley, he replied: “Well Zach Carter, you tell Grover Norquist that Harry Reid says he can go f— himself,” in a tone that suggested he would feel little remorse if I did the same. Then he hung up. Demoralized, I spent the rest of the day analyzing mortgage default data. The quote was spicy, but useless for readers interested in banking policy.
I remember this episode out of thousands of conversations with politicians and staffers over the years because it was my first inkling that Harry Reid was a very different man than the person I had believed him to be. At the time, I didn’t mind orchestrating inflammatory calls to Harry Reid’s office because I didn’t like Harry Reid. To me, he embodied everything wrong with both the Democratic Party and American politics. At the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Reid voted twice for major articles of financial deregulation that led directly to the crash of 2008. In the George W. Bush years, he voted for the Iraq War, and we somehow ended up with more troops in Iraq after Reid became minority leader. His improbable biography filled with boxing, brothels and mob murder plots only made his voting record seem worse. Lots of people grow up poor; not all of them go to Washington to deregulate banks.
The attentive reader will deduce that I have since reversed this severe judgment. Reid was indeed a flawed man as all politicians must be, but after watching him operate for a decade, I cannot help but admire him. In my lifetime, I do not think that the Democratic Party has had a more effective leader — morally or strategically — than Harry Reid. From that first phone call in 2008 through to his retirement, I learned that Reid was the savviest political fighter of his generation — a man who didn’t telegraph his punches, who carefully coordinated his troops to ensure that when they fought, it was on favorable ground, and who battled like hell for moral victory when a losing fight could not be avoided.
Reid’s legislative accomplishments — chiefly the Affordable Care Act and the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law — do not adequately summarize his influence. Reid was more important to working people for the bad things he blocked than for the good things he enacted. Social Security exists as it does today because Reid’s first order of business as Democratic leader in the Senate in 2005 was to block the Bush plan to privatize the New Deal program.
“He did the Michael Corleone — my offer is nothing,” recalls Ari Rabin-Havt, a former Reid staffer who advised Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) after Reid’s retirement. At a time when there was no progressive blogosphere, no HuffPost and no lefty Twitter bloc, Reid refused to negotiate with Bush on Social Security, and held a caucus full of conservative Democrats — Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) among others — unified against the Bush plan. They won, and Bush’s presidency began its great unraveling.
In the profusion of well-intentioned remembrances from Democratic lawmakers since his death, Reid’s willingness to rebuke them when their moral compasses were mislaid is being conveniently un-recalled. Reid’s legacy includes his early and unwavering alliance with Barack Obama, but it also included a lot of grunt work to keep Obama from sabotaging his own presidency.
Until the financial crisis forced a rearrangement of priorities, Obama’s top goal when entering office was to enact a “Grand Bargain” with Republicans on the federal budget deficit. The general scheme was straightforward: Democrats would agree to cut Social Security and Medicare while Republicans would agree to raise taxes on the wealthy. He would take on his own party’s “sacred cows” if Republicans would agree it was time to “eat our peas.”
It all sounded very noble until you decoded that Obama believed that the poor and the elderly bore as much responsibility for reducing the debt as the be-yachted and tax-havened. The people who had struggled the most in the American economy would be forced to sacrifice along with those who had benefited the most.
But if Reid wasn’t going to cut Social Security for George W. Bush, he wasn’t going to do it for Barack Obama. He battled the president’s twisted fiscal priorities for years. If you wanted to reduce the deficit, Reid reasoned, tax the rich. But intentionally reducing the incomes of working people would be a moral crime and political malpractice, particularly during a long and grinding recession.
Reid’s work against Obama was often hard to see by design, and at times Republicans intervened to save him the trouble of taking a dramatic public stand. But in 2013 Reid made his longstanding position known to the public: “There is not going to be a Grand Bargain.” There never was, and its absence has never been a problem. The national debt has roughly tripled since Obama entered office, without any obvious consequences for anyone.
We can learn as much about Reid from his defeats as we can from his victories. At the close of 2012, when the Bush tax cuts were at last scheduled to expire, Reid was thrilled. Once tax rates rose for everyone, Republicans would be eager to strike a deal cutting them where they could. But Obama — sustained insistence on deficit reduction notwithstanding — wanted a deal more than he wanted a number. And so he dispatched then-Vice President Joe Biden to the office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — a maneuver obviously designed to go around the top Senate Democrat. Biden agreed to a set of concessions which not only preserved the Bush tax cuts for people making up to $400,000 a year, but set up another round of budget cuts only two months away. Disgusted, Reid threw the administration’s list of concessions into his office fireplace, and let every publication in Washington know that he had done it.
Reid recognized that politics mostly demanded doing the best you could with a bad hand. Compromise was not a dirty word if it meant forestalling a situation worse than what the deal could create. Much of the work involved being prepared for the moments when fortune favored you. At such times, you took the win, and you took everything you could. There was a difference, to Reid, between working for Beltway comity and working for the interests of working people.
Most politicians use the art of compromise as an excuse to engage in corruption for its own sake — don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good while I shovel this load of money to a big bank. And there is no use pretending Reid was immune to the demands of big money. He shamelessly battled on behalf of the Las Vegas casinos, going so far as to defend the integrity of ultra-right-winger Sheldon Adelson from charges that his political influence was as corrosive as that of the Koch brothers.
But he was nevertheless strategic. During the financial crisis, he waged war with big banks to prevent them from foreclosing on MGM and other Las Vegas properties that sustained thousands of jobs in his home state. Sure, he was looking out for local interests, but this kind of rescue activism is exactly what Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has been praised for in his management of the 2020 coronavirus crash.
It’s not an accident that an enormous crop of people in Washington who are not only progressives but extremely effective people earned their stripes in Reid’s office — Adam Jentleson, Ari Rabin-Havt, Kristen Orthman, Josh Orton and Faiz Shakir among others have all gone on to do important work for the offices of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and various progressive organizations. Reid himself elevated the profiles of both Sanders and Warren during his tenure, giving them rein to advocate for the interests of working people when other Senate leaders might have urged quietude in the name of message discipline and corporate fundraising.
Reid was always an insider, never an activist. He frequently differed with Sanders and Warren on strategic details. But he was the rare insider who believed it was important to elevate the voices of outsiders who might shift the caucus in a productive direction. Reid will never win a purity contest with Sanders, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the Vermont socialist to denounce Reid as a corporate sellout.
Reid had a strong, intuitive sense of class politics that distinguished him from other Democratic leaders. The political machine he assembled in Nevada was built from union sweat for the benefit of working Latino families — people who didn’t look like Reid, but whose stories he easily identified with as a man born into a childhood of struggle. Plenty of Democrats pay lip service to working people; Reid understood them. In the decade I spent watching his career up close, he never lost sight of who exactly all his insider maneuvering was intended to help.
It’s impossible to say what Reid would have done with the Democratic caucus over the past three years. Maybe Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) would have overmatched him in a 50-50 Senate, as they have President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Or maybe Reid would have overseen a better campaign in 2020 that would have resulted in a stronger majority. Or insisted on a floor vote for Build Back Better in July, or directed a Republican billionaire to build a new casino in Morgantown, W.Va., to bring Manchin around. Genuinely great leaders think of things other people don’t — that’s what makes them great. Nobody can say just how Reid would have salvaged Biden’s agenda, but it is awfully hard to imagine him letting it rot in the Senate for eight months right through an election.
Sometime in the winter that straddled 2010 and 2011, I found myself being toured through the Capitol by Jim Manley, the same guy who had dismissed me over the phone in 2008. He detailed a bunch of political history that I no longer remember, before carefully explaining why, exactly, he had responded the way he had on that botched phone call. Sometimes a public feud with a conservative ideologue can be productive, he said. But sometimes it’s just a distraction. If you see nothing to be gained, don’t comment and move on. If you know nobody will read the article, say what you think — but get it over with. Jim, it turns out, is a real gem of a person. But not when it’s a waste of time. The same could be said for his boss.