November 15, 2004

Is Harry Reid the leader the Democrats need?

As we recover from the shock that was November 2, Democrats all across the country prepare for the onslaught of an extreme, right-wing agenda. Clinging to hopes of success in the midterms or even retaking the White House in ‘08 might be soothing conjectures for the meantime, but the most important time for the Democrats is the next two years. Now the accidental president is accidental no longer and emboldened by both his re-election and Republican gains in both houses of Congress. Therefore, we Democrats must find those who will provide leadership, tenacity, and vision.

If we look to the White House, we see an administration that will continue to be run by neo-con ideologues and political hacks. We look to the House of Representatives only to find that the GOP has an even greater majority in a place where it does not need it. With the House so heavily structured by procedure and those procedures unequivocally resting in the hands of the majority party, Nancy Pelosi and the beleaguered House Democrats will find it difficult to effectively oppose any piece of the Bush agenda. Then we see a Supreme Court that promises to be remade in the appalling image of Clarence Thomas.

We must look, then, to the Senate-—A Senate that we hoped would be in the hands of the people's party, but in fact has fewer Democrats than before (45 to be exact). Further more, the Senate will be the battleground for the next two years when it comes to every important policy issue, including taxes, social security, and Supreme Court appointments. Yet Tom Daschle, the leader of the Senate Democrats for 10 years, was narrowly defeated, and his skill and experience could have been put to good use in these troubling times. Incidentally we must examine Harry Reid, the new Democratic leader, and see if he has the skills, the tenacity, and the vision that both Democrats and the nation deserve.

Going on 65, Harry Reid is certainly not the obvious man to lead the Democrats in 2004. A Mormon from Nevada, Harry Reid opposes abortion, sides with mining interests instead of the environment, and has co-sponsored a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning. Moreover, in this age of style-as-substance politics, Harry Reid as a public face and a public speaker is, to put it mildly, underwhelming.

Yet, the first question must be: Does Harry Reid have the skills to be an effective leader of the Democratic party? And the answer to that question is: Yes. Yes, Harry Reid does have the skills to fight and win endless Senate skirmishes by employing his tactical knowledge of Senate procedure. His six years of experience as minority whip and Daschle's lieutenant, especially in a time of intense partisanship will equip him to handle the tactical aspect of law-making upon which so many legislative victories depend.

The second question must be: Does Harry Reid have the tenacity to unite and mobilize the Democrats when they are besieged by the Bush administration and the Republican majorities in Congress? The answer to that question is: Yes and no. Harry Reid is certainly tenacious. He has been a fiercely-partisan whip since 1998. That year, he beat a Republican candidate by just 428 votes in a re-election contest. He is often described as "determined" and "stubborn" by his Senate colleagues. Even so, his colleagues also describe him as "amiable," and one fellow Democratic Senator likened him to Mr. Rogers. Do Democrats want a Mr. Rogers to fight against radically right-wing judicial appointees or cultural wedge issues like gay marriage and abortion? I doubt it. What's more, Reid does not have the ideological foundation to be the foil to the Bush White House. Reid is in fact closer to President Bush on some issues than he is to his fellow Democrats, namely on abortion and the environment. Thus, while Reid might enjoy a reputation as a dogged floor leader, he also has a record as a conservative Democrat and an affable neighbor.

This distinction must be clarified, however. We can make conclusions about who Harry Reid has been so far, but we cannot extrapolate those to make new conclusions about the minority leader that he will become. We must judge Senator Reid by what he does from this moment on.

Yet there is one question that we can answer with little reservation: Does Harry Reid have the vision that the Democrats sorely lack and so desperately desire? Unfortunately, he does not. The future of the Democratic party does not lie with a conservative grand-father from a desert, Western state. This is not Senator Reid's fault. But we would be kidding ourselves to think that he is or has the answer to that question. Nevertheless, what the Democrats need most is a unifying vision and a narrative, one that will let America claim to know where the party stands and one that will let the party reclaim America. And Harry Reid does not have that.

Therefore, we Democrats can remain confident that Minority Leader Reid will lead that minority with tactical skill, but we won't find that vital vision that could lead the Democratic party out of minority status and into electoral success. For that, we'll just have to keep looking.