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Never Misunderestimate Harry Reid

5 years ago
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The soft-spoken Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has vexed pundits and national political observers since he ascended to Senate majority leader.

On the national stage he is routinely caricatured as a timid Caspar Milquetoast figure, dubbed "Dingy Harry" by Rush Limbaugh as a parody of Clint Eastwood's macho Dirty Harry, and often criticized by members of his own party for not being able to keep his Democrats in line.

But Nevadans who have watched his rise over the past four decades have learned to never miscalculate the clout and tenacity of the understated Reid. In historically rough-and-tumble Nevada politics, Reid is known as a tough and calculating fighter in keeping with his experience as an amateur boxer from a scrappy desert town. Saturday night, in a historic roll-call vote, Reid delivered the knockout punch to those opposing Senate debate on proposed health care legislation. Ever since Reid announced last month that the Senate plan would include a public option, he put his leadership on the line and began lining up the 60 votes necessary to avoid a Republican filibuster.

"Years ago, George W. Bush coined a word: "misunderestimate," said Michael Green, professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada. "Whatever his intentions, it's actually a good word, and it perfectly describes how most people view Harry Reid. While a lot of people imitated chickens looking for their heads, Reid figured out how to get the 60 votes he needed. He never would have brought the bill forward if he didn't think he could get them." As a Las Vegas attorney put it: "Reid was playing chess while everyone else was playing checkers."

Still, the battle is far from over as the debate now moves to the Senate floor. Reid's fragile Democratic caucus is already showing signs of rupture. Centrists within his party are vowing to oppose a bill that contains a government-run plan. By all accounts, Reid's behind-the-scenes maneuvering to deliver his 60-member consensus is one for the history books. "The gold standard for Senate majority leaders is LBJ, who could dominate and manipulate his caucus more easily in the era before the Internet and when jet travel enabled senators to spend most weekends back home," said Green. "But LBJ once was asked his greatest achievement as leader and he replied: 'Convincing Hubert Humphrey to take half a loaf,'" referring to then Sen. Humphrey's stubborn refusal to compromise on any number of issues. Indeed, Reid managed to convince his caucus to accept half a loaf -- a bill that is far from final but one that satisfied each senator in some way.

It's unclear what effect Reid's major coup in Washington success will have on voters back home in Nevada, where he has been trailing in the polls for his 2010 re-election. Even though Reid is the most powerful political figure Nevada has ever produced, liberals and conservatives in the state attack him with equal passion. Right-wingers think he's too liberal, and left-wingers think he's too compromising toward the Republicans and moderate Democrats. When Reid addressed a Las Vegas gathering last summer, more than 100 protesters carried signs that read: "Too Liberal for Nevada" and "Anyone But Harry."

With the election less than a year away, Reid has a $25 million war chest and a pack of nine little-known GOP challengers. All nine appeared at a recent forum for Republican women in southern Nevada, and judging from their Reid-bashing and internal jockeying, it's going to be a chaotic and splintering race. "If their pitches . . . are any indication," according to the Las Vegas Review Journal, the jostling among Republicans who hope to face Reid "will focus on the economy and taxes, as well as who is most devoted to the Constitution and liberty."

Two candidates have emerged as possible frontrunners -- Danny Tarkanian and Sue Lowden. "Little Tark" is the son of famed
University of Nevada-Las Vegas basketball coach and is himself a former UNLV basketball star. Lowden is a rabidly anti-union former casino owner, television news reporter, beauty queen and one-term state senator. Neither Tarkanian nor Lowden were first choices of the state Republican Party to tackle Reid, but when GOP heavy hitter Sig Rogich endorsed Reid, well-known Republicans declined to challenge the powerful incumbent senator. Rogich, a longtime Republican political operative who was a top consultant to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, encouraged all Nevada Republicans to support Reid. "Nevada needs to understand at this perilous time in our state's history, why would you ever think about getting rid of the majority leader of the U.S. Senate?"

In the end, Reid's success in Nevada will depend on Nevadans' knowledge and understanding of how politics and government work. It's up to the Reid campaign to show them how Reid's seniority and position as Senate majority leader benefits them all -- Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike.

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