Harry Reid Says Something Smart

by Brien Jackson

In my last post a few days ago, I off-handedly remarked that gay rights seemed, to me, to be akin to a progressive version of the right’s critique of Obama’s handling of Iran; if only he would announce his support, everything would change. Nevermind the institutional limits or the lack of any ability to do anything particularly concrete. When I wrote that, however, I had completely forgotten about the persistent progressive criticism of Harry Reid as Senate Majority Leader, which seems like a much more useful comparison. And I suspect we’re going to be seeing a lot more of this sort of criticism after this:

Still, there’s little doubt that Reid will have his hands full just keeping his caucus in line — especially given its geographically and ideologically diverse makeup.

Reid says he expects the tactic of gentle persuasion to work best, given the size of his Senate Democratic flock and the political divergences within it. “I don’t dictate how people vote,” he said in an interview this month. “If it’s an important vote, I try to tell them how important it is to the Senate, the country, the president … But I’m not very good at twisting arms. I try to be more verbal and non-threatening. So there are going to be — I’m sure — a number of opportunities for people who have different opinions not to vote the way that I think they should. But that’s the way it is. I hold no grudges.”

I’ve only read a couple of posts on this so far, but generally speaking it seems that the criticism is that Harry Reid is weak. And it’s true that the quote does make him sound like something of a weakling, and it’s also true that Harry Reid as Majority Leader is pretty weak, but it also seems like pointing out that the reason a lot of this is so is that the Majority Leader position is just a fundamentally weak role. I’ve noted it many times, both here and elsewhere, but the problem most people make in judging Reid is to assume that the Senate Majority leader is analogous to the Speaker of the House. That just isn’t so. For a variety of reasons, the former doesn’t wield anywhere near the power the latter does. And that’s the way the Senate likes it. Power is concentrated with committee chairman and swing votes, not with leadership. And given the long duration of a Senate term, leadership really doesn’t even have uch of an ability to use the ballot box against marginal members. Mary Landrieu doesn’t have to run for re-election until 2014. How many votes is she going to cast today that are going to remain hot issues 6 years from now? And as Reid roughly found out when he tried to remove Lieberman from his seniority in the caucus, the Majority Leader does not get to dictate intra-caucus issues to nearly the degree the Speaker of the House does, mostly because the fact that his caucus is about 1/4 the size of the House caucus means each member has much more involvement in the question.

It also seems worth pointing out that Reid is right on the substance. It’s true that the Democratic caucus is 60 members strong, but it’s also accurate that this really isn’t an accuratte assessment of the number of votes they’re likely to have on any question. Putting aside whether or not the caucus can stay in line, two of those 60 members are Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy, who are going to miss most votes due to health reasons and effectively leave you with 58 members most of the time. With that in mind, I actually think Reid is doing a pretty good job of framing the problem, from a political standpoint. If he were out and about giving credence to the notion that Democrats can do whatever they want because they have 60 Senators, the default story for any failed cloture vote would be how Reid couldn’t keep the caucus in line. Aside fro being bad for Reid personally, that sort of primary narrative gives cover to the people who break ranks, by casting it as primarily Reid’s fault. The way Reid framed it, however, as the Senate, and the Democratic caucus in particular, being a much more individualistic chamber, and with members largely making up their own minds vote to vote, makes it much easier to construct a narrative blaming marginal Democrats by name for blocking votes, making it much riskier for them to do so. Do Ben Nelson or Mary Landrieu want to wake up to see a headline reading “Sen. Nelson/Landrieu Kills Healthcare Reform?” I rather doubt it. And that sort of pressure makes it harder for them to break ranks in meaningful ways.

Harry Reid does and says a lot of stupid things, but this isn’t one of them.