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Sunday, October 23, 2016

WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is an acquired taste. It may surprise people outside of his Democratic caucus that many of his colleagues will miss him. But they will.

Charismatic he is not. He sometimes stumbles in his choice of words, and utterly fails a series of other Beltway tests. For example, our era claims to revere authenticity but prefers contrived personalities that seem warm and solicitous. Reid refuses to try to be someone he isn’t — I doubt he could pull it off even if he wanted to — and gets little credit for being resolutely himself.

There is a vogue for admiring Lyndon Johnson’s take-no-prisoners canniness as a legislative leader. But there is actually an unacknowledged tilt in our media and political culture toward politicians who wrap the knives they wield in political battles with velvet. Harry Reid isn’t into velvet and he also doesn’t pander very well to journalists. We like being pandered to, even though we don’t admit it. Reid has no compunction about picking up the phone and issuing a scolding when he dislikes something he sees in print.

But there is a big upside to Reid’s approach, which is candor. Reid grew up in difficult circumstances in a tough little mining town called Searchlight, Nevada. I once asked him if he’d go back there when he retired. “Have you ever been to Searchlight?” he replied, suggesting that no one in his right mind would aspire to such a thing. Asked and answered.

In many of the accounts since Reid announced on Friday that he would not be running for re-election, his power has been explained in part by his capacity as a listener who understood his colleagues and their needs. That’s true.

Democrats also realized that having a former boxer with a pugilistic personality at the helm was absolutely essential in the face of a Republican Party that had moved sharply to the right. It picked up from the House that Newt Gingrich built in the 1990s a far more partisan and combative approach to legislating.

The Senate, in its self-importance, loves to characterize itself as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” But veterans of the Gingrich House steadily made their way to the Senate’s Republican ranks and brought a new style with them. The differences between the two bodies shrank.

Reid took over the Democratic leadership after the 2004 elections that saw the defeat of his predecessor, Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the first majority leader to lose his seat since 1952. Daschle was a loyal partisan, but his style was more that of the older Senate. Reid did deals across party lines where he could, but he knew the place had changed and he acted accordingly.

One problem was the explosion of the filibuster. Democrats aren’t entirely innocent here. But the routinization of the filibuster was primarily a Republican innovation after the Democrats took back the Senate in the 2006 midterm elections (a victory Reid helped engineer).

A study by Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, showed that use of the filibuster spiked in 2007 and 2008 (and it’s gone up since). While 8 percent of legislation in the 1960s was subject to “extended-debate-related problems,” 70 percent of the major bills in 2007-2008 encountered those challenges.

Reid dealt with the Senate he had, not the Senate he wished he had. His glory years will be the short window of 2009-2010 when Democrats held both houses and the presidency and he managed to push through landmark bills, including the Affordable Care Act and Wall Street reform. He did so with an ideologically diverse caucus for which the cliché about herding cats does a disservice to how relatively organized felines are.

And pressed by impatient younger colleagues, Reid took the first steps to fixing the filibuster by making it easier to confirm executive appointees and lower-court judges. Reid resisted the sentimentality of those who bemoaned an end to “Senate traditions” because he knew those traditions were already dead. He will be remembered as a modernizing realist.

And the miner’s son from Searchlight is the kind of person Democrats insist they represent but with whom they have great trouble talking these days.

Reid is the working-class kid from a very hard background who had to fight his way up. You might say that in Reid’s party, the Smooth Deal has replaced the New Deal. Reid could never be mistaken for a Smooth Dealer, and this is why I’ll miss him, too.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Then-Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks during the dedication of the Dr. Norman Borlaug statue in the National Statuary Hall at the U. S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Mar. 25, 2014. (U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr)

  • Dominick Vila

    Harry Reid is likely to be missed by more than just Democrats. He is a realist who understands and knows how to deal with the ideological polarization of Congress, and our society at large. He has been able to reach across the aisle whenever he could, and remained steadfast in his determination to achieve his goals, and those of his party, when necessary. His role in passing the Affordable Care Act, and the support he has given to Sen. Warren in her pursuit of Wall Street reform, are likely to be his major legacies…and the targets of political attacks and ridicule by those who want to take America back to the days of the company store and ideological witch haunts.

    • mike

      Baloney, Dom.
      Reached across the aisle, now that’s laughable. Reid refused to bring anything to the floor that Republicans put out there. He is an outrageous partisan.
      His legacy will be ACA and changing 60 vote to majority, which will back fire on the Democrats going forward.
      Last years mid-term and his decision to go after the Koch brothers was both ineffectual and a big waste of democratic money. His great leadership sure increased the democratic representation of the Senate, didn’t it?
      Reid is the symptom of the Senate and we will see if things will improve with Schumer.

      • Schumer is as treasonous and as worthless as Reid.

        • mike

          Yes, but he will try and get things done, just because he wants too.
          Reid protected Obama at every turn and cared less about moving forward.
          Two years a long way off, who knows what the cards will look like.

          • Perhaps, but I worry about what he will try to get done.

          • mike

            He is in the minority and has no real power.

          • dpaano

            Dream on….

          • mike

            I would have thought after embarrassing yourself saying Karl Rove was Secretary of State and not even spelling his name correctly you would give up trying to be knowledgeable or relevant.

          • charleo1

            “just because he wants TOO.” ??? Just because he wants also?You’re ignorance is irritating.

          • mike

            Irritating, Really??


      • charleo1

        Dom said, “As often as he could,” reach across the isle, he did. Which is entirely reasonable. Since no self respecting Democrat ever reaches across the isle for Winger Jackasses such as yourself there Sparky. Why would they?

  • Dave

    He is just another corrupt politician out of Washington DC. This is just another reason why we need term limits for congress.

  • TMZ1928

    Harry Reid is the most corrupt Senate leader in history.

    • latebloomingrandma

      How so? did he take bribes? Who “bought ” him to do their bidding? Or is it about acquiring and knowing how to use power, which goes with the job?.

  • FT66

    Harry Reid did his best, BUT he was the man who fought by using actions only. I would prefer now to have a person who can fight using his voice together with actions. That works best , I reckon!

  • EriktheRed

    “Reid took over the Democratic leadership after the 2004 elections that saw the defeat of his predecessor, Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the first majority leader to lose his seat since 1952.”

    It may be a minor quibble, but really Sen. Daschle was actually the MINORITY leader when he lost re-election. He was only majority leader until 2003.

  • Jon Johnston

    At this rate, Obama’s going to destroy the democrats as a viable US political party.