Harry Reid Should Not Be the Only Democratic Leader Capable of Saying 'No'

Image via AP Photo.
Image via AP Photo.

A New York Magazine feature on outgoing Senate minority leader Harry Reid doesn’t leave much room for optimism about congressional Democrats’ ability to effectively oppose Trump.


Reid, a deft political maneuverer who provided one of the only substantial early Democratic responses to Trump’s win, also seems fairly clear-headed about the grim prospects of business-as-usual in Democratic party leadership. When asked by an aide whether he’d support a Joe Biden 2020 bid, he replied: “It appears we’re going to have an old-folks’ home. We’ve got [Elizabeth] Warren; she’ll be 71. Biden will be 78. Bernie [Sanders] will be 79.”

Reid, Jason Zengerle reports, had expected his replacement Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY)—who’s known as more of a dealmaker and appears to already have a working relationship with Trump—to be the Majority Leader under a Clinton administration, but sometimes completely unanticipated nightmares come true, and now the Democrats are being lead by a guy who might not be able to powerhouse the kind of stymying opposition effort many progressives believe is necessary to derail Trump’s popularity.

“Chuck will go to the ramparts on an issue when it’s polling at 60 percent, but as soon as it gets hairy, he’s gone,” says one senior Democratic Senate aide. “Chuck wants issues to have no negatives, but it’s the Trump era. He’s looking at polls ­showing 60 percent for the Carrier deal” — in which Trump persuaded the company to keep a furnace plant in the U.S. in exchange for $7 million in tax breaks — “and thinking to himself, Maybe we should support that.

Reid told New York that “Senator Schumer—or somebody—will have to be willing on a consistent basis to say no.”

An aide quoted in the piece effectively sums it up: “You can get talked out of each individual fight, and you can make the case that in every one of these instances, Democrats should cave under pressure and go along.” But “if we do, we’ll have allowed Trump to have a functional first year that completely devastated Democratic priorities in the process.”

The Nevada senator, who is generally loathed by Republicans, is described by former Obama advisor David Axelrod as “canny, relentless, and yet deeply committed to politics as something more than the acquisition of power.”

“We as public servants would be better off not worrying about everybody liking us, because it’s easy to be around here and get reelected and reelected and reelected and not take stands on much of anything,” Reid told Zengerle. He also mentioned that time he lied about Mitt Romney’s taxes:

“As my staff will tell you,” Reid said to me when we spoke the next day, “I’ve done a number of things because no one else will do it. I’ve done stuff no one else will do.” I expected him to give an ­example of a successful parliamentary maneuver or perhaps a brave political endorsement, but instead he mentioned one of the most disreputable episodes of his long career, when, during the 2012 presidential campaign, he falsely accused Mitt Romney of not having paid his taxes. (Even though the facts were wrong, the accusation spurred Romney to release his tax returns, which showed he had only paid 14.1 percent.) “I tried to get everybody to do that. I didn’t want to do that,” Reid said. “I didn’t have anything against him personally. He’s a fellow Mormon, nice guy. I went to everybody. But no one would do it. So I did it.”


This was not a particularly shining moment for Democrats’ beloved ethical high ground, and yet Reid has repeatedly demonstrated the value in occasionally ceding some of that ground in order to oppose the GOP agenda—and with Republican leadership, even in state legislatures, demonstrating their willingness to bring an AK-47 to a wrestling match, so to speak, it would appear to be an extremely bad time for the Democrats to lose a leader like that.

Here’s a good roundup of the terrifying quandaries Senate Democrats face:

Nearly two months after the election, Senate Democrats are by all accounts unprepared and without a coherent strategy when it comes to opposing Trump’s agenda. Should they obstruct at all costs, even if it grinds government to a halt, and risk criticism that they’re just as partisan and ruthless as Republicans were under Obama? Should they partner with Trump in areas where he disagrees with GOP orthodoxy and hope that voters reward them as the party out of power? Should they prioritize delegitimizing Trump and winning 2020 — or defending vulnerable Senate seats in 2018? It is in the Senate where, theoretically, Democrats have the best shot at countering almost total Republican dominance of Washington. But to be effective they will need to be ­tactical and tough, and it’s likely they will be missing Harry Reid a lot.


Now would be a really great time for everyone to get their shit together.

Ellie is a freelance writer and former senior writer at Jezebel. She is pursuing a master's degree in science journalism at Columbia University in the fall.



Come on, Duckworth and Harris.