Senate minority leader Harry Reid is retiring after the 2016 elections, the Nevada Democrat announced Friday. In a video message, the 75-year-old Reid claimed the decision had nothing to do with being in the minority, or with difficult reelection prospects, or with his recent accident in his home. But the injuries he sustained in that accident, he said, caused him to reevaluate and determine he would not run again for a sixth term in the Senate. So ends the tenure of one of Washington’s most petty, mercurial, and frustratingly (for Republicans) successful figures.
The fundamental story of Reid, particularly in his eight-year reign as majority leader, is one of a myopic authoritarian who scored short-term political and tactical gains while doing damage to the institution of the Senate and his own party. Oh, and he was kind of a jerk about it all.
Reid can be “uncommonly mean,” as a senator once put it to me. He’s called George W. Bush a “loser” and said he “can’t stand” John McCain. He mocks the weight of staff members and even colleagues, like at a press conference when he teased his deputy, Chuck Schumer, for having a double chin. Reid once excoriated a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a “first-class rat,” a “miserable liar,” a “shit stirrer,” and a “tool of the nuclear industry.” In 2009 a reporter asked Reid to clarify a statement he had made on the Senate. He told her to “turn up your hearing aid.”
“It was clear for those of us who understand English,” he added.
More central to his legacy than these outbursts will be the despotic way Reid ran the Senate. At the time Reid was elevated to Democratic leader, the party seemed in disarray. Tom Daschle, the longtime leader from South Dakota, had just been ousted in the 2004 elections, the first time a Senate party leader had lost reelection in more than 50 years. Reid was Daschle’s deputy, but the Senate Democrats had a deep bench of stars: Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd. All of them were more in line, culturally, politically, and geographically, with the power base of the Democratic party. But there was also no reason for any to trust the others with the top job, and a few of them had presidential ambitions to boot. Perhaps that’s why it made sense for the soft-spoken, seemingly moderate Reid to take on the role.
In truth, Reid was the perfect choice for leading the Senate Democrats through the Obama era. He knew his colleagues’ needs and motivations better than anyone. After becoming leader, he moved left on guns, abortion, and the war as the party became more liberal on those issues. A supporter of the Iraq war in 2003, by 2007 Reid was declaring the war “lost” in the midst of the surge, which he claimed was “not accomplishing anything.”
As majority leader after 2006 and particularly during the Obama administration, Reid advanced the liberal agenda by passing the stimulus and Obamacare, the latter through a convoluted manipulation of Senate rules in what would become a hallmark Reid tactic. Republicans regained control of the House in the 2010 midterms, but it was Reid who gummed up Congress’s productivity in the subsequent years. His strategy of “filling the amendment tree” blocked Republican senators from offering their own amendments to force Democrats into politically embarrassing debates and votes. When frustrated Republicans attempted to force Reid to consider their amendments by voting against his motions to close debate, Reid accused the GOP of “filibustering” the important work of the Senate.
Prompted by the liberal wing of the conference, Reid changed the Senate’s longstanding filibuster rules in 2013 to further weaken the minority party. Young progressives had had the filibuster in their sights for years, even though some Democrats were skeptical that getting rid of the tool was a good idea long-term—Democrats like Harry Reid, once. “If some had their way, and overruled the Senate parliamentarian, and the rules of the Senate were illegally changed so that the majority ruled tyrannically, then the Senate—billed to all as the world’s greatest deliberative body—would cease to exist,” he said in 2008.