Harry Reid's chutzpah politics



President Obama clearly needed that key parliamentary victory on Saturday night, when the Senate Democrats voted in unison to bring health care reform to the Senate floor for the very first time. But Harry Reid arguably needed it more.

Unlike Obama, the Senate majority leader is up for re-election next year in Nevada, and it's hard to see how he wins a fifth term and keep his leadership post unless he can show diehard Democratic voters back home that he has the clout to deliver on Obama's signature issue. Indeed, these days, clout is what he's all about. Reid is already airing TV campaign ads in Nevada, essentially rolling the dice like a true Nevadan, seeking even in this anti-incumbent environment to sell his incumbency as a prime asset. In the words of one Reid commercial, he is "the most powerful senator Nevada has ever had."

There's an old saying in politics, "Hang a lantern on your problems." In Reid's case, it's all about convincing skeptical Nevadans (and the skeptics appear to be in the majority) that his exalted status is something they should be proud of. And even though his state is currently saddled with a 13 percent jobless rate and the nation's top foreclosure rate, he can list the various ways that he has brought home the bacon during his long tenure - such as the fact that he has pumped $3 billion into state coffers from the sale of federal land, thanks to a bill he championed back in '98.

But the health reform crusade may well complicate his re-election prospects. If a Senate bill ultimately passes and Obama ultimately signs sweeping reform into law, his Democratic voters - disproportionately based in Las Vegas and environs - may well be sufficiently motivated to turn out for him in the '10 election. If the whole reform effort collapses, those voters may well stay home, having probably concluded that his clout was worth beans. That would be fatal, because he can't win without the Democratic base - which now includes the 100,000 new Democrats who registered on the eve of the '08 election just to vote for Obama.

On the other hand, a successful health reform effort may well motivate opposition Republican voters to turn out in droves, with the aim of punishing Reid for his clout and his fealty to Obama's top priority. And many of the state's independent voters might conclude that their home boy had used his clout to mollify his liberal Senate colleagues and craft an overly liberal health reform package. 

Yet despite all these risks, and as a corollary to that "hang a lantern" rule, Reid has opted to make himself the public point man on health care reform, taking Senate ownership of the issue; witness last week's rollout of what can only be described as the Reid bill. He has become the face and voice of a polarizing, controversial issue at a time when his poll numbers are sagging in a swing state. (But he has weathered tough political environments before; in 1998, he won re-election by 428 votes.)

Clearly, he has decided that it's better to try to use the clout and get something done, rather than simply playing it safe and passing nothing. (Conservatives are outraged that he secured Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu's support for a floor debate on health care by agreeing to send $300 million to her state, but this is standard clout behavior in Washington. Back in 1981, Ronald Reagan offered federal pork to certain Democratic lawmakers, in exchange for their support of his tax cuts.) Time will tell whether Reid's clout strategy is smart, but at minimum we can all agree that it's definitely chutzpah.

The Republicans are hoping to pick off a few Senate Democratic incumbents next year (Chris Dodd also comes to mind); in their current targeting of Reid, they often cite their successful ouster of Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle back in 2004. But the comparisons are not exact. For starters, Nevada is friendlier Democratic than Dashle's South Dakota; in Nevada, registered Democratic voters exceed their GOP counterparts by roughly 110,000. More importantly, Daschle's opponent was John Thune, a popular and seasoned politician with a statewide following (Thune was the sole congressman, representing the whole state).

Reid, by contrast, will likely have the luxury of facing an underwhelming Republican challenger - either Danny Tarkanian, a former Las Vegas basketball star who has lost two previous state races; or Sue Lowden, a former state senator and TV reporter. Plus, the state's Republican hierarchy is not exactly lovable these days. Senator John Ensign is still enmeshed in his sex scandal, and Gov. Jim Gibbons, who has long been saddled with a slew of financial scandals, did Republicans no favors recently by making a tasteless joke about Reid. (Nearly 30 years ago, when Reid was a prosecutor targeting the mob, the mob attached a bomb to the Reid family car. It failed to explode. The story was well reported. Last month, Gibbons told a talk show host that the story was phony, that the bomb was actually "a shoe box with a phone book in it." He has since apologized.)

Nevertheless, polls conducted last month show Reid losing to Lowden or Tarkanian by double digits. It's way too early to view such polls as harbingers of what might happen 11 months from now, and certainly premature to state that Reid will thus become the first Senate majority leader to lose a re-election bid since 1952. Reid told reporters not long ago, "The people in Nevada know me very well. They know what I've done over the years."

But if they know him so well, why is he already running a biographical TV ad that essentially introduces him for the first time? And why is he advertising his clout, if Nevadans already know how well has used it? Clearly he's digging in early for a difficult fight, and his ownership of health reform will help determine his fate.