Harry Reid Had the Courage of Obama’s Convictions

The former Senate majority leader's legacy included big wins and a complicated relationship with the party's left flank.

UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 14:  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., makes his way to a podium to address the media after the democratic caucus luncheon.  Reid addressed the timing of legislation such as the DREAM Act, Don't Ask Don't Tell, 9/11 responders bill, and the tax comprise bill, that he wants to bring up for business before the Senate adjourns for the holidays.  (Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., makes his way to a podium to address the media after a Democratic caucus luncheon on Dec. 14, 2010. Photo: Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images

On the night of December 16, 2010, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid dialed President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. The Democrats had been shellacked in the midterms a bit over a month earlier, and Republicans were set to take over the House in just two weeks. That meant two weeks to finish what they could of Obama’s legislative agenda, and Reid and the White House had conflicting priorities. Obama wanted to see the Senate approve the New START Treaty, a nuclear arms reduction pact Obama had struck with Russia. Reid, meanwhile, wanted to see how far he could get with two other issues: repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which barred gay, lesbian, and bisexual people from serving openly, and taking a run at the DREAM Act, which would confer a path to citizenship to people who’d been brought to the country illegally as children.

The DREAM Act was struggling, but Reid saw a path to “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal and told Obama that he planned to put it on the floor. Obama made a strong case against it, convinced that it would fail and derail the remainder of the lame-duck agenda. It was a familiar argument from some of his advisers — that losing on one issue was contagious and would infect the rest of the agenda, and therefore it was better to put “points on the board” with certain victories. The DREAM Act was scheduled for a vote on the same day as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and the thought of two losses was just too much to bear. Reid heard him out before delivering his response. “Well, Mr. President, sometimes you just gotta roll the dice,” Reid said, and hung up, leaving Obama with the dial tone that routinely signaled his conversations with Reid were over.

When Reid saw an opening, he took it. Reid told me he promised the president that he’d also do what he could to get the treaty approved. “I told the president, I understand how important the START Treaty is, and I’ll do everything I can to help with that. But I said, I’m going to go ahead and ‘roll the dice,’ exact words, ‘roll the dice,’ on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ I said, I think it should turn out well for both of us, but I’m rolling the dice. It turned out well for both of us,” Reid said. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal was successful and the New START Treaty was approved, though the DREAM Act died.

Lt. Dan Choi, is flipped over by law enforcement officers as he is arrested for handcuffing himself to the fence outside the White House  in Washington, Monday, Nov. 15, 2010, during a protest for military gay-rights. The group demanded that President Obama keep his promise to repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Lieut. Dan Choi is arrested for handcuffing himself to the fence outside the White House to demand that President Barack Obama keep his promise to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15, 2010.

Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Still, it was necessary for the DREAM Act to die for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, to live. The lame-duck showdown illuminated the gap between Obama’s cautious, high-minded approach to politics — we must not potentially, theoretically jeopardize the ratification of a nuclear disarmament treaty extension! — and Reid’s willingness to, in his words, roll the dice. But it might not entirely explain to people who came of political age after Reid’s heyday what a consequential figure he was. The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” removed a key obstacle to marriage equality, paving the way for the Supreme Court to bless it in 2015. Had he failed to move in that moment, it’s impossible to see the subsequent Republican Congress take action, which then makes it extraordinarily difficult for the Supreme Court to rule the way it did. But consequential as that roll of the dice was, a Reid cynic could dismiss it as getting ahead of a culture war victory that was only a matter of time.

Pointing to his two signature legislative accomplishments — the Affordable Care Act and Wall Street reform, which included the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — can be similarly unsatisfying. Reid’s true accomplishment was in what he stopped from happening — combating conventional wisdom to save Social Security and Medicare and stave off an extreme round of austerity — and the way in which his confrontational approach reshaped elements of the Democratic Party in the coming years. That all of it wasn’t enough to reshape the country is a testament to the narrow possibilities available to any party leadership figure in such a desiccated political environment. But it’s also, in some part, at the feet of Reid, as he worked hard in the Nevada 2016 Democratic presidential caucus to suppress the very energy he had organized and helped unleash. Reid died after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer on December 28, retired, at the age of 82. After a private service in Nevada on Saturday, Reid will lie in state in the U.S. Capitol.

Following Reid’s death, Obama released a letter he had recently sent to Reid demonstrating that he still had calls like that one from 2010 on his mind. “I got the news that the health situation has taken a rough turn, and that it’s hard to talk on the phone,” Obama wrote. “Which, let’s face it, is not that big of a change cause you never liked to talk on the phone anyway!” In truth, Reid spent much of his day on the phone and knew the numbers of his Democratic colleagues by heart, checking in with all of them frequently. He just wasn’t one for small talk.

“That was a courtesy call,” said Faiz Shakir, a former senior aide to Reid who went on to manage the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2020, on the latest episode of Deconstructed. Once Reid had settled on a legislative strategy, he was determined to see it through.

“I wouldn’t have got most of what I got done without your skill and determination,” Obama continued. Harry Reid was, ultimately, the man with the courage of Obama’s convictions.

The White House stands illuminated in rainbow colored light at dusk in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, June 26, 2015. The Supreme Court's ruling that gay marriage is legal nationwide is a "victory for America," U.S. President Barack Obama said today, declaring that justice had arrived for same-sex couples with "a thunderbolt." Photographer: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The White House stands illuminated in rainbow-colored light in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling that gay marriage is legal nationwide, in Washington, D.C., on June 26, 2015.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

In 1840, William Henry Harrison — Ol’ Tippecanoe — made his humble upbringing in a log cabin central to his presidential campaign, just as Abraham Lincoln would 20 years later. If anything, their legendarily impoverished childhoods would have been an upgrade for a young Harry Reid, whose home had no indoor toilet or hot water. When his brother Larry broke his leg, he screamed for days, unable to get medical treatment, recalled Ari Rabin-Havt, a former aide who did research for Reid’s memoir, on the most recent episode of Deconstructed. When a mentor gave Reid a $50 bill to cover the cost of taking the bar exam, it was the first time he had held that much money in his hand. At 14, Reid and his brother Larry finally attacked their father, a miner, to defend their mother against his repeated drunken assaults. When his father killed himself, Reid was called to the home, finding his father’s dead hand still holding the gun.

Reid’s childhood produced in him a hostility toward wealthy elites that he clung to until his dying days, yet that did not prevent him from wanting to become an insider. He chose to go to law school at George Washington University, and of all the places he could have worked to pay his way through, he chose the U.S. Capitol, becoming a police officer there.

Back in Nevada, he became the town attorney for Henderson and then, still in his 20s, won election to the Nevada Legislature. By 30, he was lieutenant governor. In 1974, the Watergate wave year, he tried to parlay that into a Senate seat but lost by less than 1,000 votes.

His run for Las Vegas mayor the next year was also unsuccessful, leading to his stint instead as chair of the gaming commission. Even there, his tenure is more complicated than the Eliot Ness, crime-fighter image that has since emerged. The FBI captured audio of mobsters claiming to have Reid under their thumb, and in his famous, later cinematically portrayed public confrontation with Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, he admitted to asking Rosenthal to help bury an unfavorable story. Reid himself wore a wire to take down a mobster trying to bribe him, and later a bomb was found under the hood of his car.

By 1982, with Nevada getting a second House seat, he won the district covering Las Vegas. Four years later, he finally won his first Senate race. Burrowing even deeper inside, he rose through the ranks of Senate Democratic leadership, ultimately coming out on top in 2005.

It’s hard to contemplate the scale of the destruction the former Senate majority leader averted for the simple fact that he averted it.

After arriving in Washington, Reid’s career largely consisted of defending gains amid retreat. Following the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004, the invigorated president declared bluntly that he had collected new political capital, and he intended to spend it on privatizing Social Security.

Bush proposed allowing workers to divert their Social Security tax money to Wall Street, in a complicated scheme that would have enriched the latter and impoverished the former. In Washington, the media clamored at its highest pitch for Democrats to get serious and offer their own counterproposal. That was how Washington was supposed to work. Rahm Emanuel, then a congressional representative from Illinois, floated a plan that would create private retirement accounts but would be separate from Social Security, but that was the kind of thing progressives warned would be the camel’s nose under the tent of Social Security.

But Reid was the new minority leader of the Senate Democratic caucus, and he and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi took an unusual tack for Democrats, accustomed by the last 40 years of retreat to compromise and preserve as many of the gains made under the New Deal as possible. They simply said no. They had no counteroffer. “President Bush should forget about privatizing Social Security,” Reid told reporters on Capitol Hill. “It will not happen — and the sooner he comes to that realization, the better off we are.”

Conventional wisdom said that this was not just a losing strategy but was also deeply irresponsible — and the press didn’t let up. Wall Street titan and Nixon administration alumnus Peter Peterson had spent hundreds of millions of dollars seeding Washington with austerity propaganda, and a large chunk of the Senate Democratic caucus, stacked with far more conservative members than today, had already called for “reforms” to Social Security. If a single one publicly broke with Reid’s strategy and sat down with Republicans to negotiate, it could have created a jailbreak.

OMAHA, UNITED STATES:  US President George W. Bush waves as he arrives to address a meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, 04 Feburary 2005 to promote reform of the the state-run Social Security retirement program, on the second day of a two-day, five-state trip to convince a divided US public and a polarized Congress to embrace his call for partially privatizing Social Security.       AFP PHOTO/Tim SLOAN  (Photo credit should read TIM SLOAN/AFP via Getty Images)

President George W. Bush waves as he arrives to address a meeting to promote Social Security reform in Omaha, Neb., on Feb. 4, 2005.

Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

The troops deployed by Reid were the nascent Netroots, a blogosphere of activists and writers dedicated to stiffening the spines of Democrats, many of whom had risen to prominence in the midst of Howard Dean’s challenge for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. Reid didn’t understand how this community worked — he called it “The Blog,” according to his longtime lieutenant Susan McCue — but he understood its potential.

Reid brought in Rabin-Havt and later Josh Orton, who had roots in the blogosphere and liberal talk radio, to bring him closer to it, fueling one of the most consequential political evolutions in a generation. (Both Orton and Rabin-Havt went on to work for Sanders.) Reid began regular conference calls with bloggers during which the lines were open, producing a genuine give-and-take. State-based blogs had started to spring up, but the national blogosphere had yet to fully flesh itself out. The site Talking Points Memo was in its infancy and a hub of activity, tracking the fight relentlessly.

When Reid got word that a Democratic senator was going wobbly and thinking of hearing Bush out, his staff would let the bloggers know, they’d write about it, and then the senator’s office would be flooded by phone calls and they’d quickly get back in line.

“I knew the strength of that networking was just starting, and I felt I should be in in the beginning rather than try to jump in in the middle.”

In 2006, the first national blogger convention, called Yearly Kos, was held not coincidentally in Las Vegas, and Reid gave the keynote address. “I remember I was at the first Daily Kos conference. I frankly — let’s see, how to phrase this? — I didn’t fully understand the impact, but I knew the strength of that networking was just starting, and I felt I should be in in the beginning rather than try to jump in in the middle,” Reid told me. I asked Reid why he was able to evolve with the time politically while many of his colleagues remained stuck in the 1980s. “First of all, I had a wonderful staff who was very — I listened to them,” he said. “My thought process changed on many different issues.”

The more the public learned about Bush’s scheme to privatize Social Security, the less popular it became, and he ultimately admitted defeat and shelved it. It was the beginning of his political collapse. Followed by scandals related to his mishandling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, corruption, and chaos in Iraq, it led to a Democratic sweep of Congress, making Reid majority leader — a position he held until 2015, when chaos in Iraq would again flip control of the Senate.

LAS VEGAS - JULY 24:  U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) speaks at the fifth annual Netroots Nation convention at the Rio Hotel & Casino July 24, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Netroots Nation, formerly called the YearlyKos Convention, is a convention for political activists and bloggers.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks at the fifth annual Netroots Nation convention in Las Vegas on July 24, 2010.

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Reid did not fall backward into the leadership of a Senate supermajority with Obama in the White House; he had methodically put into place each piece, beginning with the president. In the fall of 2006, Reid and his longtime friend Judy Hill, who did upkeep on his home in Searchlight, Nevada, were in Reid’s living room when Hill spotted a Time magazine graced with then-Sen. Obama’s image. That man, said Hill, should be our next president. “Good choice,” Reid told her, Hill says, clearly indicating with his smile that Obama was his pick too. Hill nearly fainted when Obama called her on her cellphone from the White House to thank her for her early lobbying of Reid. Reid’s payoff for his endorsement of Obama was a promise that Yucca Mountain in Nevada would never be used as a nuclear waste storage dump, and Obama followed through, naming a Reid aide to run the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Yet during the fight over the Affordable Care Act, Reid was often battling the White House as much as his conservative flank. After the election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts cost Senate Democrats their 60-vote supermajority, Reid turned toward the budget reconciliation process to get Obama’s health care law done. That way, it only needed 50 votes to pass, which meant a public health insurance option was also back on the table, despite the White House hostility to it.

In the House, Reps. Jared Polis and Chellie Pingree began circulating a letter calling for the Senate to add a public option through reconciliation. The blogosphere hounded House members until more than 100 signed on. Polis enlisted the support of Sen. Michael Bennet, a first-term Democrat from Polis’s home state of Colorado facing pressure from a progressive primary challenger and in need of some cred. New York’s first-term Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also signed on, her first big break in the Senate with her Blue Dog roots in the House. With first-term Sen. Jeff Merkley and sophomore Sen. Sherrod Brown, the four put out a Senate version of the Pingree-Polis letter.

The effort caught fire in the Senate, where more than 40 senators eventually made the commitment and more than 50 said they would vote for it if it were on the floor.

The letter gave despondent grassroots Democrats something to organize around, and they began calling their senators and members of Congress and demanding that they sign the letter. As names piled up, the new endorsements created new stories, articles that then fed the outside activism.

As the number of senators joining the effort expanded, it generated leadership support, with Chuck Schumer and Bob Menendez getting behind it. With genuine momentum behind the public option, Harry Reid was the next to jump on board.

“Senator Reid has always and continues to support the public option as a way to drive down costs and create competition,” read a statement his office put out Friday, February 19, 2010. “That is why he included the measure in his original health care proposal. If a decision is made to use reconciliation to advance health care, Senator Reid will work with the White House, the House, and members of his caucus in an effort to craft a public option that can overcome procedural obstacles and secure enough votes.”

The White House didn’t appreciate the new energy. A few hours after Reid’s office put out its statement in support of the public option, Obama’s chief of staff, former Rep. Emanuel, met senior Reid aide Jim Manley and a few reporters from the Washington Post and the New York Times for dinner and drinks at Lola’s, a Capitol Hill bar and grill. Seeing Manley, Emanuel offered a response to Reid’s gesture with one of his own: a double-bird, an eerie sight given his severed right finger.

As the final details of the bill were being worked out, a national public option was still alive; Reid and his aides were trying to work through the details of what type of public expansion would be agreeable to the caucus, and the two senators they needed to go through were Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman. Both would take the offers back to representatives of the insurance industry for feedback, Reid aides said.

Connecticut’s political economy has long been dominated by insurers, which were major supporters of Lieberman. Nelson, meanwhile, simply was the insurance industry. He had been an executive at Central National Insurance Group of Omaha, before becoming the state’s insurance commissioner. After his stint in public service, he went back to the insurance company, eventually becoming the firm’s president.

Privately, efforts by Reid staffers to persuade the White House to include the public option were rebuffed. “The word kept coming back, too many promises have been made. It’s over,” said one senior Reid aide. The public option was not included.

“We had the votes, it just didn’t last very long,” Reid told me years later. “We had the votes on public option for 24 hours, and a number of votes changed. Where the pressure came from, I don’t know, but it came, and we were unable to get it done.”

UNITED STATES - JULY 22: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., attend a reception in the Capitol's Rayburn Room to celebrate the Supreme Court's upholding of the Affordable Care Act, July 22, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., attend a reception in the Capitol to celebrate the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Affordable Care Act on July 22, 2015.

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

Reid’s major legislative push in 2009 and 2010 coincided with his own reelection campaign in Nevada. In 1998, Reid had survived by fewer than 500 votes and determined after that election to reshape Nevada’s politics to give himself bigger margins. He spent years building up the state party machine and poking holes in the opposition.

To survive, he had worked over the Republican field for years. Kristen Orthman, who worked on his 2010 campaign and served as an aide until Reid’s eventual retirement, said that Reid had identified then-state Sen. Joe Heck as a potential Republican opponent. Seeing the Obama wave coming, he recruited a serious challenger and knocked Heck out of the Nevada Senate in 2008, hobbling his rise through the ranks and taking him off the table for a 2010 Senate run. He relentlessly targeted the GOP front-runner, Sue Lowden, in the primary, making national news out of her infamous suggestion that health care reform was unnecessary because people could simply barter chickens for care. Sharron Angle, a tea party favorite, ended up winning the primary.

Reid’s hostility to the tea party bordered on the obsessive. An early convert to clean energy, he was building a wind turbine outside his Nevada home in early 2010. As it was being constructed, Sarah Palin, the late Sen. John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election, announced that a tea party rally would be held in Searchlight, a town of about 500 people at the time. When Reid heard, he found his handyman, Richard Hill, and delivered marching orders. “He wanted it up before the Tea Party Express came through,” Hill told me. Reid made clear how important it was to have that wind turbine erected before Palin’s arrival, so that it could stand as a middle finger in the face of the rows of flag-waving RVs.

“We got it up the day before,” Hill said. He almost never bothered Reid while he was in Washington, where the senator stayed at a suite in the Ritz-Carlton, but decided that it was worth it and texted Reid that the deed was done. Reid instantly sent back his gratitude.

But it was by deploying his Senate power on behalf of a private development project that got him reelected. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the biggest urban development project in Las Vegas, CityCenter, was at risk of failure and could have brought the entire state economy down with it. Reid browbeat banks into refinancing the project and keeping it alive, then ran on the jobs it saved. Orthman, meanwhile, called a local radio station while Angle was on air and asked if she’d have made the same decision. “No,” Angle said, likely costing her the race.

Reid won by a convincing 6-point margin.

But after Democrats lost the House in the 2010 tea party wave, Obama vowed to “tighten our belts,” sitting down for major negotiations over what Washington called a “grand bargain,” a deal that would comprehensively slash Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid while also raising taxes — ostensibly in the name of deficit reduction but effectively aimed at driving the final dagger of the Reagan Revolution into the heart of a functioning government. It was in many ways a rehash of the Social Security battle, and Reid fought it from the beginning.

Because it was a high priority for Obama, Reid worked delicately to undermine it, though the contest often burst into public. One weekend in 2013, during government shutdown negotiations, I published a story sourced to multiple Senate Democratic leadership aides critical of White House efforts to capitulate to a recent Republican demand. Obama picked up the phone and called Reid to complain and accuse his chief of staff, David Krone, of leaking. Krone himself was listening in on the call and surprised Obama by piping up and taking offense at the accusation. That year, Reid finally made it clear: “There is not going to be a grand bargain,” he declared. On another occasion, Reid famously showed his contempt for a list of White House concessions by crumpling it up and throwing it into his office fire — a gesture that quickly appeared in the press.

Reid famously showed his contempt for a list of White House concessions by crumpling it up and throwing it into his office fire.

Having beaten back the grand bargain, Reid joined with Sen. Elizabeth Warren in going on the offense, calling for Social Security not to be cut but to be expanded. The ground was finally changing, and though Reid had shown a willingness to betray the establishment, that willingness only went so far.

Reid had stiffened Democrats’ spines against Bush and later against Obama’s willingness to capitulate to the politics of austerity, but ultimately he was boxed in — or had no interest in breaking out of the box — by the politics of his era. In 2016, when the Clinton machine was challenged a second time, this time by Sanders, Reid stood by the Clintons. Obama versus Hillary Clinton was an intra-insider contest, the kind in which Reid felt comfortable bucking a faction of power. But Sanders versus Clinton was outsider versus insider, and Reid stayed true to his fellow insiders, deploying his Nevada machine against Sanders in the caucus.

Reid never revealed his role in forcing the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” onto the Senate floor while Obama was still in office. I learned about it through former Reid aides and confirmed it in an interview with Reid. After I reached out to Obama’s post-presidential office for comment in 2019, Obama called Reid to discuss the issue, and Reid said that he would talk with me again to clarify any potential misunderstanding. When we spoke again, he stuck by his original story.

“There is no doubt that — let me say this the right way — the issue was over the [START] treaty and ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ Now, Obama was always in favor of [repealing] ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” Reid said. “I had to make sure that I could pass both of them, and I wasn’t sure I could. So I decided what I was going to do is get what I thought was going to be the hardest out of the way first, and that was ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ I got that done, knew I had the votes for that, then I did the [START] thing, that’s how it worked. But please, I don’t want anyone to think that Obama did not favor ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ [repeal].”

I asked Reid: “So Obama’s concern was that it might not have the votes and it and the DREAM Act failing might then take down the START treaty, is that right?”

“Yes, and my job was to get both of them done, and when I got the votes to do it, I said, ‘Here I go, I’m gonna do it,’” Reid said, “and so that’s how it worked out.”

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