In Washington DC Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is one of the nation’s most powerful Democrats. In Nevada Harry Reid is in danger of being out of a job. The Nevada lawmaker, who will be seeking a fifth term in office November 2010, is trailing Republican challenger Danny Tarkanian, son of the legendary Jerry Tarkanian, former basketball coach at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, by 11 percent points, according to a poll taken in mid-August by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. Reid also would lose by five points to Sue Lowden, the Nevada Republican Party chairwoman and a former state senator, the poll shows.
Why is Reid in trouble? Perhaps the reason is there are actually two Harry Reids, the Nevada Reid, that understands the needs of his home state, and then there is the Washington Harry Reid whose position as party leader, gives him so much visibility. And what the Nevada voters see is a party leader that puts the priorities of his party in front of the needs of his home state.
In the Aug. 6 edition of the Las Vegas Sun, readers saw an op-ed by Harry Reid. “I have never taken up the Washington hobby of pointing fingers for political gain,” reassured Nevada’s eminently reasonable, bipartisan, four-term senator.
A few hours later, Mr. Reid appeared for the national press, armed with a piece of Astroturf, to berate town-hall protestors as captive to “Internet rumor mongers and insurance rackets.” The Republican Party “is run by a talk-show host,” snapped Washington’s eminently angry and partisan majority leader.
Welcome to Mr. Reid’s bipolar world, which isn’t about to fuse any time soon. As a senator up for re-election next year in a swing state that is on the economic ropes and wary of Democrats’ liberal plans, Mr. Reid is under pressure from constituents to work with Republicans toward a reasonable agenda. As the public face of the Democratic Senate, Mr. Reid is under pressure from his liberal wing to tear up the opposition and advance his party’s wild ambitions. Never the two Harry Reids shall meet, as Mr. Reid’s dismal poll numbers are proving.
The Harry Jekyll and Harry Hyde routine has become so pronounced that these days Democrats are worrying if the real concern isn’t Harry Daschle. The former South Dakota senator and Democratic leader also tried this edgy double life, though his constituents got wise to his tendency to put his party’s obstructionist agenda ahead of their interests and threw him out in 2004. The thought of another humiliating leader defeat—this time with 60 Senate seats to their name, and in the first election cycle after Barack Obama’s victory—has Democratic leaders in a near panic.
Mr. Reid, when asked recently about the Daschle comparison, shot back that Nevada is no South Dakota, which sports only “30% Democrats.” True, though it also is no Massachusetts. The Obama wind that won Democrats the state last year is no longer at Mr. Reid’s back. The president’s approval rating has dwindled to 45%. And those numbers look good compared to the latest Mason Dixon poll showing a full half of Nevadans disapproving of Mr. Reid. Mr. Reid polls 13 percentage points worse than Nevadan Sen. John Ensign—who’s just admitted he’s had an affair.
The majority leader’s problem is that Nevadans watch the national news, too. They know him as the guy who pushed through a $787 billion stimulus, only to watch the state’s unemployment rate push 13%. He’s the guy who, far from creating jobs, has pushed Big Labor’s priority of “card check”—despised by the state business community. He’s a public face for President Obama’s health plan, which a recent poll shows that at least half the state opposes. As the Las Vegas Sun put it recently, the biggest complaint from residents is: “Harry Reid, Too Liberal for Nevada.”
Mr. Reid knows it, which explains why the summer recess saw a lot more of the Nevada Harry. He’s left it to New York Sen. Chuck Schumer to defend the “public option” for health insurance, or the tactic of using reconciliation to jam health care down the GOP’s throat. He spent his break studiously discussing renewable energy, only last week agreeing to hold a (tele) town hall on health care.
In that event the senator vowed he was trying to get a “bipartisan health-care bill” and soothed callers by saying that, while he supported a public option, he wanted one run by a “private entity.” This followed a speech Mr. Reid recently gave to the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce in which he was up on bipartisanship, down on reconciliation, neutral on card check, and didn’t even mention the public option.
And yet it’s as if the more partisan Washington Harry just can’t help himself. Frustrated that Las Vegas would dare to still have two newspapers—one that is actually critical of him—Mr. Reid recently told the advertising director for the Las Vegas Review Journal: “I hope you go out of business.” The public rebuke from the newspaper’s publisher has dominated the state’s news this week. Though at least it took attention away from the uproar over Mr. Reid’s characterization of town-hall activists as “evil-mongers.”
If the majority leader has one saving grace, it’s that the Republican Party has proven equally confused. Criticisms of Mr. Reid aside, the party has yet to recruit a top-flight candidate to run against him next year. It’s true that in hypothetical GOP matchups, Mr. Reid loses every combination. Yet the thing about hypothetical matchups is that they are hypothetical.
What is certain is that Mr. Reid’s life isn’t going to get less complicated. While liberal blogs and progressive groups, conscious of a Daschle redux, have largely given Mr. Reid’s Nevada outreach a pass, they’ve also made it clear that when Congress reconvenes they’ll expect to see the Harry Reid they’ve come to know and love.
To add to the mix, some Senate Democrats are watching their majority leader duck and dive the health-care debate, and they are wondering why they should take a punch if he won’t. Good question. Majority leaders are there to lead. To do that they first need to be honest about what they stand for.