Good riddance, Harry Reid. The Senate minority leader has announced that he won’t run for reelection when his current term expires in 2016.
When he’s gone, many political observers will remember Reid as a tough competitor and a skillful politician. He should also be remembered for what he leaves behind: a disconcerting racial legacy.
As opposed to those elected officials who spend their whole career loyally advocating for one group of people, Reid made his bones in racial and ethnic politics by playing both sides of the cultural divide—depending on what was most politically convenient at the time.
During the more than 30 years he represented Nevada in Washington—as a member of the House of Representatives from 1983 to 1987, and in the Senate from 1987 to the present—Reid was bound to stick his foot in his mouth now and then. All politicians do. The problem isn’t that Reid said some dumb things. The problem is that, too often, those things were of a racial nature. He was like a little kid who liked to play with his colors.
This is the man who, according to the book Game Change by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, said privately during the 2008 election campaign that Barack Obama could win the presidency because he is “light-skinned” and speaks “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Reid apologized for “using such a poor choice of words.” President Obama accepted Reid’s apology, though he called the comments “unfortunate.”
But Reid wasn’t limited to black and white. Nevada has a big Latino population; about 28 percent, according to Census figures. And he figured out early in his career that passions ran high on the issue of how Latinos impacted America—demographically, culturally, etc. By the end of his career, he was known as someone who would defend Latinos against unfair attacks and scapegoating, as long as they remembered at election time.
Yet two decades earlier—sounding a lot like an early version of Rep. Tom Tancredo, the openly nativist Colorado congressman who helped make the GOP brand toxic with Latino voters—Reid was busy trying to score political points with white voters by demonizing Latino immigrants as interlopers and takers. You know, the kind of people who had no claim to U.S. citizenship, either for themselves or their children.
In 1993, Reid introduced legislation that would have done away with the practice of the United States bestowing so-called “birthright citizenship” to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. On the House floor, Reid insisted that “no sane country” would decree that a child of illegal immigrants was a citizen just because he was conveniently born on its soil.
What Reid found inconvenient was the Constitution—specifically the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which begins:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside…”
That was the old Harry Reid, a sort of Republican lite. Then there is the new Harry Reid, who mastered the art form of using race and ethnicity to light Republicans on fire.
There was the time, in 2006, when Republicans snuck in an amendment to an immigration reform bill declaring English the national language of the United States—because well, you know, that sort of thing really goes a long way toward stopping illegal immigration. Reid, who was then Senate minority leader, called the amendment “racist” and said it was “directed basically to people who speak Spanish.”
Later that year, and again in 2007, Reid helped kill immigration reform legislation—albeit discreetly—because the bills included a provision for guest workers that was opposed by the Democrats’s sugar daddies in organized labor. Then, with unbelievable chutzpah, Reid went before the television cameras and accused Republicans of being responsible for the outcome.
In 2010, Reid, who was then Senate majority leader, accused Republicans of being hostile to Hispanics because “their skin’s a tone darker than ours” and then, in one of his most outrageous ethnic outbursts, said he couldn’t imagine “how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican.”
Then, at the end of that year, Reid—who is normally a master at rounding up votes from Democrats—conveniently lost, in the 11th hour, five crucial votes from Senate Democrats on a motion to call for cloture (requiring 60 votes) on the DREAM Act, a bill that would have granted a path to citizenship to undocumented young people who went to college or joined the military. The motion failed, and the DREAM Act died on a vote of 55-41.
Things could not have worked out better for Reid. Since most of the “no” votes came from Republicans, he got to go before the cameras again and paint them as anti-immigrant obstructionists. And, at the same time, he didn’t have take responsibility for passing what some conservatives considered “amnesty” for college students. It was a win-win.
Immigration was Reid’s special chew toy. In the last 10 years or so, Reid has constantly depicted Republicans as anti-Latino and himself as a savior for beleaguered brown people. Granted, some Republicans are anti-Latino, which plays into Reid’s hands. But that is beside the point. Reid makes it seem as if Latinos have nowhere to go, and then rewards them for their loyalty with a mixture of neglect and manipulation.
Here’s the impressive part: Reid did all this while not giving away the store to Latino activists who push for the legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants. Reid understood that many voters—including many rank-and-file blue-collar workers and union members who normally vote Democratic—aren’t so keen on the idea of rewarding lawbreakers and would punish any political party that makes this happen.
Some might say—generously—that Reid “evolved” over time. But you’d be surprised how few times that genuinely happens in politics. In Reid’s case, it might be that it was politics that led him from opposing the idea of bestowing citizenship to babies who were born in the United States to supporting the idea of giving a path to citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants because the unions that he supported so fervently moved to the left and began to advocate for immigration reform in order to beef up their membership ranks.
But is that last part of the narrative even true? Have unions really made a full and authentic conversion? The people who run these organizations must know that many of their rank-and-file members (who happen to be older and white) do not support immigration reform or welcome the entry into the normalized, legal labor market of millions of unskilled laborers who will serve as additional competition for jobs. Yet they also know that the future of at least some of these unions is Latino. What’s the solution?
What union leaders seem to have settled on—since about 2000—is a dishonest strategy where the leaders give a little money and sign a few letters, but keep the issue off the agenda in-house so as not to inflame or divide the members. Behind the scenes, in the negotiations that go on in Congress, labor representatives or union-friendly lawmakers work to undermine reform by removing language calling for guest workers, knowing that Republicans won’t go along with reform bills that don’t include it. So labor is not acting in good faith, but simply trying to fool Latinos into thinking that it’s on their side when the only interests they’re protecting are their own.
Ditto for Harry Reid. His cynical brilliance is that he is able to paint his opponents as villains and himself as a hero while getting everything he wants and not doing what he doesn’t want to do—all while making it seem that it’s Republicans who are the bad guys.
Finally, in 2012, Reid tried to rev up minority voters by referencing the donations that Mitt Romney had taken in from business and saying this on the Senate floor: “If this flood of outside money continues, the day after the election, 17 angry old white men will wake up and realize they just bought the country.”
That’s funny. I’m awake, and I see only one angry old white man.