Harry Reid detonated his Senate retirement bombshell in the same tough way he ran the chamber – spending months calculating his options behind closed doors before acting in a sudden bolt of understated drama.
The top Senate Democrat rocked Washington on Friday with a YouTube announcement that he would not run for re-election, vacating a power base he used to confound Republicans and shepherd the centerpieces of President Barack Obama’s liberal political legacy into law.
Reid, a former amateur boxer and Capitol Hill policeman from the fly speck town of Searchlight, Nevada, will leave a substantial and controversial legacy of his own.
Owing to a fabled American journey from his family’s spartan rock miner’s cabin to the summit of Washington power, Reid enjoys huge credibility among liberals and deep loyalty among Senate Democrats. Indisputably one of the towering political figures of his era, Reid’s soft spoken style only hints at the steel of a leader known for unflinching toughness and dedication to his state and progressive causes.
Yet Reid is often blamed for deepening an era of political polarization with irascible rhetoric about Republicans and the use of controversial Senate procedures that left traditionalists worried the consensus that once made the chamber special has vanished forever.
Reid, 75, made his announcement after a period of reflection partly enforced by his recovery from an exercise mishap which left him with deep bruising to his face and an eye injury requiring him to wear dark glasses that added an inscrutable air to his imposing image.
A private man, Reid works long hours and late nights, and is famed for staying in a Georgetown hotel when he is in Washington, and recently relocated his permanent base from his boyhood hometown to Las Vegas.
But despite his public reticence, Reid is a “unique” political figure, at least according to Obama, who called into a Nevada radio show featuring the senator on Friday.
“He’s got that curmudgeonly charm that is hard to replace,” Obama said on KNPR Las Vegas. “We’ve had a great run.”
But Republicans are trying to tarnish the still-unfinished Reid legacy, and styled his departure from the Senate in late 2016 as an admission of an exhausted political brand.
“On the verge of losing his own election and after losing the majority, Senator Harry Reid has decided to hang up his rusty spurs,” said Ward Baker, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “His retirement signals that there is no hope for the Democrats to regain control of the Senate.”
It’s too early to chart the impact of Reid’s exit on Democrats in 2016, but loyalists are in no doubt where he stands in history.
“He will be remembered as one of the greatest, if not the greatest Majority Leader of many of our lifetimes,” said Josh Orton, who worked on Reid’s communications team in the middle of the last decade. “He had an amazing bulls–t detector. He could always recognize who was doing something for selfish reasons, and who was doing something purely for the right reasons.”
Reid will be remembered for passing the centerpieces of Obama’s legacy – the Affordable Care Act and a huge 2009 stimulus bill against blanket Republican opposition.
“How in the world did Obama and Reid get to where they are?” Reid asked on KNPR, marveling at the unusual backgrounds of two men who both engineered an unlikely political rise. “Never in the history of the country have we produced more for a president and somebody that has led his party than we have done together.”
Highly controversial maneuver
Reid piloted Obamacare through the Senate using a highly controversial budget maneuver known as reconciliation to bypass a Republican filibuster, and told the GOP to “stop crying” about it.
Obama’s former political guru David Axelrod tweeted on Friday that Reid was “canny, committed and tough as nails.”
Earlier, in the darkest hours of the Great Recession, Reid ushered through a nearly $800 billion economic stimulus plan through the Senate despite insurmountable rows with most Republicans who said it was too expensive and racked up too much debt.
The president often seemed amused at Reid’s understated demeanor but learned to respect his political skills and the uncompromising character of a man who survived several close re-election scares over his six Senate terms.
“This is one tough guy. Harry used to be a boxer,” Obama said at an Nevada fundraiser in 2010 “He’ll say, ‘you know, I wasn’t the most talented guy …. but I could take a punch.’”
“He would outlast the other guys (and) he’s taken his lumps.”
Harry Reid does not flaunt his power or strut. Reporters have to strain to decipher his soft spoken news conferences, and he quietly creeps about the Capitol, radiating hidden malice with a thin smile and the mournful stoop-shouldered gait of a lawyer in a Charles Dickens novel.
Last line of defense
But he has often been the last line of defense for Democrats. He has been a staunch defender of social programs and, reflecting wishes of the large Hispanic community back home, is an enthusiast for immigration reform.
Reid also waged fierce partisan warfare over Iraq with President George W. Bush and mobilized to thwart the Republican’s bid to reform social security – which he saw as the start of an assault on welfare state programs that are an article of faith for liberals.
But he also worked quickly with Bush in late 2008 when the financial crisis raged and Congress had to swiftly pass controversial legislation that ultimately saved the financial system from collapse.
Friday’s announcement unleashed a toss-up battle for Reid’s seat in Nevada and wider speculation about how his departure would affect his party’s hopes of recapturing the chamber in 2016.
Reid said in his video that he did not want to soak up party resources that could be used to help other Democrats win back the chamber.
And he issued a clear hint that, freed from the obligations of seeking re-election, he would thwart the Republican majority’s hopes of framing a solid record of governing to put before voters next year.
“My friend, Senator McConnell, don’t be too elated. I am going to be here for 22 months. I am going to be doing the same thing I have done since I first came to the Senate,” Reid said.
Reid and McConnell
Mitch McConnell, the new GOP Majority leader and Reid have become the terrible twins of dysfunction in the gridlocked Senate, both using arcane procedure to slow and throttle the promise of each other’s rule.
The years of combat have taken a toll on their personal relationship but McConnell responded to Reid’s announcement on Friday by offering the hard won respect of a longtime foe.
“Underestimated often, his distinctive grit and determined focus nevertheless saw him through many challenges. They continue to make him a formidable opponent today,” McConnell said in a statement.
Republicans reviled Reid during his eight years in control of the Senate, refusing to consider amendments and abrogating normal process on the Senate floor.
In 2013, Reid, after a long and angry standoff with the GOP, overturned years of Senate tradition by adopting the “nuclear option” to eliminate the use of the filibuster on most executive and judicial nominees.
Back in the minority
In the minority since January, Reid has already begun to play hardball with the new Republican leadership as he seeks to block GOP efforts to overturn Obama’s executive actions on immigration, causing a new logjam.
Reid was among the first Democrats to privately urge Obama to run for president, presciently arguing the charismatic rookie senator from Illinois could electrify grassroots Democrats.
But he also sparked controversy after it emerged in the campaign book “Game Change” that he had also privately described Obama as a black candidate who could win because of his “light skinned” appearance and lack of a “Negro dialect.” Reid later apologized.
It was not the first time – or the last – that Reid’s sharp tongue got him into trouble. He reserved particular disdain for Bush.
“The man’s father is a wonderful human being,” Reid said, but referring to the 43rd president, added: “I think this guy is a loser.”
In 2007, Reid outraged among Republicans after he criticized Bush’s last-ditch troop build-up strategy in Iraq.
“This war is lost and the surge is not accomplishing anything,” Reid said.
Jim Manley, who worked for years as Reid’s spokesman, said that his former boss never shirked from a fight.
“He might be soft spoken but unlike some politicians, he likes the idea of mixing things up,” said Manley. “There’s a method to the madness.”