Politics

Why Democrats Are Struggling to Run Harry Reid’s Old Playbook

Under his leadership, Democrats had bigger numbers. But they were also easier to buy off with political favors.

Harry Reid points with one hand.
Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid talks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 1, 2013. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Former Sen. Harry Reid, the Nevadan who led Senate Democrats for 12 years this century including eight as majority leader, died Tuesday following a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer. As the famously blunt, terse, and oftentimes unintentional master of dry comedy told the New York Times a couple of years ago, “As soon as you discover you have something on your pancreas, you’re dead.” His passing, at 82, came a couple of weeks after Las Vegas’ airport, for which he secured a ton of money during his time, was renamed after him.

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The tributes, including from past foes, have matched his legacy, one that’s almost unmet in 21st-century politics. Reid was born into nothing and clawed his way to the highest levels of government through sheer skill and determination. He ushered—or dragged—some of the most consequential legislation of the past 20 years through a Senate that was already breaking, including the Affordable Care Act, the 2009 stimulus, Dodd-Frank, TARP, and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He played kingmaker in Nevada politics, developing one of the most effective political machines in the country, which won Democrats numerous close elections including Reid’s own final race in 2010. His politics became more progressive over the years, especially on hot-button issues like immigration, guns, and abortion, as both the national Democratic Party and Reid’s own base within Nevada shifted. And since he left office in 2017, just before the start of Donald Trump’s presidential term, Democrats have often reminisced warmly on his cold-blooded style, often described as “pugilistic” or “bare-knuckled.” To use another cliché: He not only wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, he almost had a compulsion to do so. It was a useful trait in a job that required going to battle with Mitch McConnell for a decade.

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And since this is a piece about a politician who had zero filter, let’s try to be plain ourselves: These glowing tributes of Reid’s accomplishments come at a tough time for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Reid’s mentee and successor, who’s just watched what was supposed to be his own legacy-defining legislation collapse in the Senate, with no clear path on what’s next. Schumer is about to enter the sixth year of having Democrats ask What would Harry Reid have done? in the background when he’s facing a difficult choice, as he often is.

Part of the reason why is that the two do have different styles, and Schumer’s is as much a corrective to the downsides of Reid’s as anything. Reid, especially in his later years as majority leader, controlled both the Senate floor and the Democratic caucus with an iron grip, calling the plays on his own and making enemies along the way. Senate Republicans hated him for it—although they would basically run the Senate the same way when they took over—and a fair number of Senate Democrats were itching for a leadership change following the 2014 midterms when they lost control of the chamber.

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Since taking the helm, Schumer has tried to run a more collaborative Senate Democratic caucus, giving Joe Manchin, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren each a seat at the leadership table. As majority leader, he’s opened up the process more than either Reid or McConnell, passing major bipartisan legislation like this year’s infrastructure bill and the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act following lengthy amendment processes. When he can’t get something across the finish line, though—and the next few months will tell whether Build Back Better and voting rights, or what’s left of them, can go anywhere—the knock is that he’s more concerned with being liked than feared.

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But when Schumer does look weaker than Reid, there’s typically a simpler explanation that personality differences: He’s playing with a much weaker hand.

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Schumer’s Senate majority under the Democratic trifecta is 50 votes, with the vice president’s tie-breaking vote being the only thing giving him control of the floor. Reid’s majority from 2009 to 2011, during the most consequential Congress of the Obama years, ranged between 58 and 60 Democratic votes—many of them recruits, by the way, of Schumer’s during his time chairing the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 2006 and 2008 cycles. Passing the ACA through the Senate, which required the votes of all 60 sitting Democratic senators to break a filibuster, was analogous to the struggle Schumer’s been through trying to pass BBB. Reid, however, had something Schumer does not have: The willingness of the most conservative Democrat, Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, to be bought. Nelson cut a deal for egregiously preferential treatment of his state in the bill’s Medicaid expansion, something he would later ask to be removed after it brought such embarrassment. But that, and other side deals, helped get a bill out of the Senate. Schumer, meanwhile, has Joe Manchin sitting at the rightward pole of his caucus. If Manchin was willing to sell his vote on the Build Back Better Act for a slew of West Virginia goodies, then a price already would’ve been settled on. So far, he isn’t.

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Procedurally, Reid’s lasting legacy in the Senate was the beginning of the end of the filibuster. In 2013, he finally pulled the “nuclear option” and eliminated the 60-vote requirement on most judicial and executive nominations. He did so after painstakingly laying the groundwork, putting up obstructed nomination after obstructed nomination on display for all to see, to build  a case within his caucus. He lost three Democratic votes in Sens. Carl Levin, Mark Pryor, and Joe Manchin. But that was something he could afford when the Democratic majority controlled 55 seats.

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Schumer, in his efforts to eliminate or at least loosen the legislative filibuster, has been running the exact same play he learned from Reid: Putting Republican obstruction on trial by repeatedly forcing votes, specifically on iterations of voting rights legislation, to build up a case against the filibuster. This has actually worked, to an extent: 90-something percent of Democrats are ready to at least make carve-outs to the legislative filibuster if not raze it altogether. This was not the case at the beginning of the year. But he, like Reid, has a couple of holdouts who just won’t budge, and he, unlike Reid, has no way around those couple of holdouts. There is no pressure that Schumer, or anyone in the national Democratic Party, can apply in West Virginia that would make Joe Manchin fearful of his job security.

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What would Harry Reid have done with this 50-50 Senate majority that Schumer hasn’t? He would’ve been both meaner and funnier, often at the same time. He may have been more straightforward about the limits of a 50-seat majority, hiding the ball less and saying “We can’t do that because Joe Manchin’s being a jerk” in public more.

But stylistic differences aside, Reid and Schumer would’ve applied similar strategies, since Schumer is basically running the playbook that Reid invented. It was a response to McConnell’s ramp-up, during the Obama administration, of filibustering and obstruction as the norm in how a Senate minority acts. When the Senate changed, Reid changed, recognizing that he couldn’t wait for Republicans to come around forever. And when the Senate changed, so, too, would Senate rules have to change.

It’s just a little harder with a 50-seat majority.

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