Outgoing Sen. Harry Reid’s fellow Democrats said goodbye to the retiring minority leader on Thursday. Republicans simply said good riddance.
Over more than three decades in Washington, the Nevada Democrat elevated hyper-partisanship and obstructionism to an art form, one that belied his soft-spoken manner. He used his mastery of the Senate’s rules and procedures to ram through his party’s agenda when it was in power and stymie the opposition when it was not.
“In our lifetimes, he’s probably been the single most destructive figure in the Senate.”
Michael Johns, a former George H.W. Bush administration official who went on to lead the Tea Party Community, said the Senate depends on a certain level of comity and bipartisan cooperation in order to operate.
“He entirely has destroyed that legacy in the Senate, which now can hopefully be brought back. But it’s not guaranteed,” he said. “In our lifetimes, he’s probably been the single most destructive figure in the Senate.”
The negative impact Reid’s tenure can be seen in on-the-record comments by GOP colleagues in a body that usually prioritizes collegiality, particularly when it comes to a departing member of the exclusive club.
“For me, his time here has been one of failure, obstruction, and gridlock,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told reporters this week, according to The Christian Science Monitor.
For his part, Reid was unapologetic: “I was never running to be popular with Republicans,” he said at a news conference.
But what might be Reid’s most lasting legacy seems likely to come back to bite his party on the rear after he rides off in the Nevada sunset. In 2013, he deployed the “nuclear option” against uncooperative Republicans, changing the Senate’s rules to prevent 41 or more senators from using the filibuster to block presidential appointments for any office except Supreme Court justice.
The move made it easier for Democrats to confirm President Obama’s appointments to federal appeals courts. But with progressive activists screaming about many of President-Elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees, Senate Democrats will be powerless to stop them.
“They won’t say it, but Democrats clearly wish that hadn’t chipped away at the filibuster,” said Brian Darling, vice president of Third Dimension Strategies and former counsel and senior communications director for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “Now, they’re paying a price for it. It was a huge mistake by Harry Reid … He forgot the first rule in Washington — majorities are always temporary; they’re never permanent.”
Darling said the move made the Senate a more partisan, less deliberative body, “closer to a smaller version of the House.”
Reid, a former boxer, brought a fighter’s mentality to politics that bordered on rude. He once called President George W. Bush a “loser” and a “liar.” He enthusiastically tried to make billionaires Charles and David Koch the poster children of the corrupting influence of money in politics, calling them “un-American” and “power-drunk billionaires.”
After voting for the war in Iraq, he later declared, “This war is lost,” reportedly enraging President Obama’s secretary of defense, Robert Gates.
Even when Reid was trying to be complimentary, he sometimes came across awkwardly. He was forced to apologize after a book on the 2008 presidential election, “Game Change,” quoted him as saying that Obama benefited from his “light-skinned” appearance and the fact that he spoke “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
As recently as October, Reid engendered hostility when he sent a letter to FBI Director James Comey suggesting that he violated the Hatch Act by reopening a criminal probe into Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information just one month before the presidential election.
In 2012, he accused Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney — without offering a shred of evidence — of failing to pay taxes for a decade. The allegation was too much even for liberal Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who wrote at the time: “He contributes to bad feelings, gridlock and the sense — nay, the reality — that everything is done for political advantage. Reid is a crass man, the very personification of the gaudy and kitschy Las Vegas Strip.”
Darling said Reid was an effective leader for his party but added, “Sometimes, he went off talking points and said some pretty crazy stuff.”.
Reid was perhaps even more obstructionist when his party controlled the Senate than when it did not. His strategy for killing bills passed by the Republican-controlled House was simply to bury them without even a Senate vote. Johns, the Tea Party activist, said votes would have put Democrats on record as opposing popular legislation.
For all his partisanship, however, Reid never demonstrated much of a fixed ideology. During an early run for office, he used the slogan, “Independent Like Nevada,” and styled himself as a moderate Democrat. He came to Washington favoring gun rights and opposing abortion. In 1993, he introduced an immigration reform bill that would have restricted automatic citizenship to children whose mothers were citizens or permanent legal residents.
But as the Democratic caucus moved Left, Reid moved Left on all three issues.
“He compromised his principles in exchange for power,” Johns said.