Harry Reid Understood Power

Harry Reid Understood Power

The late senator from Nevada, who led the Democrats in the Senate from 2005 to 2017, wasn’t afraid of political conflict.

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Former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid died Tuesday at 82. Effective, ruthless, and understated, Reid used his position as head of the Senate’s Democratic caucus from the end of the Bush years through the Obama presidency to advance Democratic legislation and protect programs like Social Security.

His adaptable nature let Reid move from bipartisan moderate in the Clinton years to progressive warrior at the end of his career, when he pushed through as much of President Barack Obama’s agenda as he could. Reid’s quiet forcefulness made him powerful enough that he could demand that Obama cut then–Vice President Joe Biden out of backroom negotiations with Republicans, because Biden was seen as capitulating to the GOP. (“None of the deals Biden has struck have aged well,” a Senate Democratic official told Politico at the time.) 

Reid also helped cultivate the careers of a new generation of Democratic Party leaders. “When I first met him, he was talking about power in a way that I hadn’t heard in a long time, or certainly hadn’t heard from Democratic organizers or operatives,” Indivisible Managing Director Mari Urbina, who worked in Reid’s office from 2008 to 2015, told me this spring. 

“No modern Democrat has understood how to leverage power versus the Republicans like Reid,” Murshed Zaheed, a progressive Democratic strategist who worked in Reid’s office from 2007 to 2009, told me Wednesday. “He never waited around for an epiphany—he attacked and attacked some more—and won most of the fights.”

I talked to Reid extensively over the last year, both for a Nation article on his influence over his party’s progressive wing and for a second project that is still in development. During our conversations, Reid told me about his life and governing philosophy, and recounted stories about how he worked in the Senate.

Born in Searchlight, Nev., in 1939, Reid spent his early years in the tiny, depressed former mining town before decamping to nearby Henderson for high school. From there, he made his way to Southern Utah University then George Washington Law School—and, armed with a law degree, back to Nevada to ascend the state’s political ladder. 

He rose quickly. In the span of a decade, Reid became Henderson city attorney, then lieutenant governor, then Nevada gaming chairman, and entered Congress in 1980. He won his Senate seat in 1986, and would remain there until his retirement in 2017.

In Washington during the 1990s and early 2000s, Reid took positions aimed at placating a Democratic Party base perceived as tilting rightward. Democratic politicians, enthralled by Clintonite triangulation and consumed with a desire to peel off GOP voters, tacked right on social issues like abortion and gay rights. The party tried to outflank Republicans from the right, and, expecting electoral dominance for years to come, worked to reclaim the mantle of militarism it had briefly relinquished in the late 1970s and early ’80s. 

Reid followed those trends. He voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, refused to support enshrining Roe as law, and supported both wars in Iraq. Later in his career, as the party’s base became more left-leaning, Reid’s politics would shift. He opposed the occupation of Iraq, shepherded the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell through the Senate, and softened his position on abortion. 

Whether Reid’s adoption of more progressive positions was based on principle or on calculation is unknowable. But his politics didn’t deviate from a relatively liberal core belief system that allowed for flexibility as he pushed for the overarching goal of Democratic Party dominance. In Reid’s telling of it, he was willing to follow the wisdom of his peers.

“I watched other leaders—Senator Byrd, Senator Dole, Trent Lott, Dr. Frist, Tom Daschle—I watched them all,” Reid told me. “I felt that they did good work, but they were too personally involved. Everything came from the leader. I wanted to set something up so there was more of a consensus within my caucus as to what we should do.”

That consensus approach wasn’t done solely for the good of the individual lawmakers who made up Reid’s caucus. It was smart politics. Reid allowed members of his caucus a voice in decisions and preferred to have the more camera-hungry senators in the party do Sunday TV show hits; a decision that garnered their loyalty. Using consensus came alongside a philosophy that believed some conflict was necessary, a carryover from Reid’s days as a boxer. And maintaining good relationships across the party, from the White House to Senate staff, gave Reid insight into the party’s future that others in Democratic leadership lacked. 

Reid was able to see the potential of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign to challenge Hillary Clinton in 2015, long before the rest of the Democratic establishment understood what was happening. In our conversation last August, Reid said that though Sanders presented himself as an outsider on the campaign trail, the Vermont senator was an “unsung hero” of the Obama years and a “constructive” team player. 

“Bernie was very good at organizational things,” Reid said. “He, for example, tried to get delegates rather than try to win it on television—he tried to organize the delegates. He was very smart in that regard, and I knew from experience that was a way to success. So I knew he was going to do well.”

Earlier this year, the Nevada political machine that Reid built split with the state party after an upstart slate of Sanders-influenced progressives took over, a sign that the former Senate leader is still coldly wielding power even in retirement. Reid was always a canny student of US politics. The constant, as always, was power—and Reid’s use of and proximity to it. 

People in Reid’s orbit told me how the former senator’s style of managing his staff and fellow lawmakers still inspired their loyalty, affection, and respect. And the end result of Reid’s mastery of the political system meant that his tactics were seen as effective and worthy of emulation to a younger generation of Democratic Party operatives, like Orthman and Urbina.

Reid’s involvement in helping the careers of new progressive leaders in the Democratic Party wasn’t based as much on an affinity with what they were fighting for as on a political calculation of how he could maintain power. By cultivating the advancement of progressive leaders through his office, Reid made certain that they’d remain loyal to him despite any divergence in politics. Similarly, Reid would tilt further left in his last term in office, and in retirement even called for an end to the filibuster.

“If the Senate cannot address the most important issues of our time, then it is time for the chamber itself to change, as it has done in the past,” Reid wrote for The New York Times in 2019. “I didn’t come to this decision lightly.”

Former staffer Adam Jentleson, who runs the communications group Battle Born Collective with fellow Reid alum Rebecca Katz, told me that knowing how and when to fight was one of Reid’s biggest advantages in Washington politics. Where other politicians were inclined to avoid conflict and the bad press that could come with it, Reid was willing to take hits to get ahead. 

“To get an advantage strategically, you sometimes have to take hits to take a position that would eventually yield a strategic advantage,” Jentlesen said.

The pugilistic approach to politics is part of what propelled the senator to success. Reid’s infamous 2012 campaign smear against Mitt Romney—that Romney hadn’t paid taxes for a decade, which wasn’t entirely true—is a good example of the “attack dog” politics the Nevada senator employed in service of Democratic victories. (When CNN’s Dana Bash asked him after the election if he regretted the charge, Reid shrugged: “Romney didn’t win, did he?”) 

When it came to throwing down with the GOP, the senator was prepared to do whatever it took to win. Reid led the Democratic caucus against Bush’s 2005 attempt to privatize Social Security, resulting in a major victory against the incumbent and the majority party, earning him respect and affection from the newly outspoken progressive wing of the party.

“The ideological lines were just so much different than in terms of where people landed, with the Iraq war being a big dividing line,” said former staffer Ari Rabin-Havt. “With Reid, you saw somebody who was willing to basically say we can’t capitulate on Social Security cuts—we need to fight this to the death.”

Reid knew how to scrap. He famously decked his future father-in-law over the older man’s disapproval of his daughter marrying outside the Jewish faith. They would reconcile later. Reid said that one of the most important lessons he learned in the boxing ring was that fighting meant you might lose. Overcoming that fear was a fundamental part of his view on power.

“That’s my philosophy about life,” Reid told me in the spring. “You can’t be afraid to lose.”

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