Fifty years ago, when Democrats were beginning finally to break the grip of Southern segregationists on their party, the way in which key congressional positions were filled was a major issue for the party. Southern members of the House and Senate tended to serve forever. As such, they took advantage of an archaic seniority system to secure committee chairmanships and even leadership posts—making a slowly progressing party seem still to be as reactionary as it once was.
A new generation of congressional Democrats, including Phil Burton of California in the House and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts in the Senate, sought to shake things up. Unfortunately, Burton lost a key race for House majority leader in 1976, as Kennedy had lost an equally important race for Senate majority whip in 1971.
The Democratic Party opted against more aggressively progressive leadership, weakening its message for years to come. Indeed, as David Broder would write late in Ronald Reagan presidency, when Wright had been designated as Speaker of the House and Byrd was in position to become Senate majority leader: “It may turn out that the luckiest break President Reagan has in his current time of trouble lies in the character of the Democratic leaders of the 100th Congress.”
As Senate Democrats consider replacements for minority leader Harry Reid, who announced Friday that he would not seek a new term in 2016, they should remember the mistakes of the past. This, in turn, should get them thinking in bigger and bolder ways about their available options for filling a position with enormous potential to define the party’s image and direction.
Reid has been a more progressive majority leader than his predecessor, former South Dakota senator Tom Daschle. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats, was right when he observed Friday that on a host of critical issues Reid has been “a fighter for the low- and moderate-income people of this country.
But Reid has not always been effective as a communicator of progressive positions or strategies.
What Democrats should be looking for now is a Senate leader who will be absolutely progressive and absolutely effective.
The immediate speculation about replacing Reid followed conventional wisdom, with the top prospects identified as New York Senator Charles Schumer and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. But, within hours, there were reports that Durbin was taking himself out of contention. Thus, any challenge to Schumer was likely to come from a “dark horse” contender—with prominent initial mentions going to Patty Murray of Washington and Michael Bennet of Colorado.