There are some politicians who are more hated than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but few are less loved. The national numbers recorded on Polling Report are dismal. A recent Research 2000 poll has him at a 32/53 favorable/unfavorable split. An October NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that just 2 percent of the public had “very positive” feelings toward Reid. To the right, he’s the menacing, uncharismatic face of American liberalism, paired with Nancy Pelosi as the real architect of the Democratic legislative agenda in order to bypass Barack Obama’s still-considerable personal popularity. But to the left, he’s the face of repeated sellouts, of ineffectuality, of corrupt bargains and unsatisfactory compromises. Even the people of his home state of Nevada hate him. He’s losing in the polls against both possible Republican opponents, and his 38/49 favorable/unfavorable rating is disastrous for an incumbent.
From where we sit today, it looks an awful lot like the low-key, unassuming, unpopular senator from Nevada is going to deliver on the most significant piece of progressive legislation in over 40 years.
His unpopularity at home, however, only underscores the real truth about Reid—his performance throughout 2009 has been nothing short of heroic. Faced with epic political problems at home and major national challenges in Washington, he’s done what all too few senators do: Put his personal concerns aside and thrown his time and energy into said challenges. And daunting as those are, the intellectual and policy problems involved are minor compared to the political and logistical problems involved with leading the modern Senate. The anger and disappointment liberals direct toward Reid, in particular, is almost entirely misguided and would be better channeled into support for reforming the world’s most dysfunctional legislative body.
In a normal legislature, you need 50 votes to pass a health-care bill. Reid needed to bargain with Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, and moderate Democrats from a position of strength. With 60 senators now in favor of the legislation, a bill will almost certainly pass. The question now is what it looks like, and people looking for concessions need to bargain against each other for the privilege of being catered to.
Instead, Reid dealt with a combination of sky-high expectations from the base and the recently created world of the 60-vote Senate. In that chamber, he needed the vote of each and every Democrat—from wild card Roland Burris to independents like self-described “socialist” Bernie Sanders, to McCain-endorsing Joe Lieberman. Not only was it difficult to round up 60 votes; it was especially difficult to round up 60 out of 60. When each and every individual member knew that he or she could hold the whole thing hostage to an idiosyncratic concern, the incentives to do so were enormous.
But despite the challenges, Reid looks about to deliver on a comprehensive overhaul of the American health-care system.
It’s a titanic legislative achievement, and if it happens it would happen under unprecedented circumstances. The emergence of supermajority rule in the Senate, after all, makes for a bad match with a different new trend, the post-1994 conventional wisdom that the best road back to political power for a minority is to deal “defeats” to the majority. Republicans used that logic 15 years ago to defeat Bill Clinton’s plans for health-care reform, and Democrats employed it in 2005 and held firm against George W. Bush’s plans to privatize Social Security. There’s nothing wrong, in general, with the idea of a minority party offering blanket opposition to the other party’s agenda. That, after all, is how legislating works in most countries. But in most countries, the majority gets to do what it wants.
The contemporary United States, however, has been engaged recently in an experiment in what happens if you give the minority the power to block bills, and reward the minority politically for succeeding in doing so. The results aren’t pretty, and the system needs to be reformed.
But health care can’t wait for that to happen. So instead, circumstances left Reid with the nearly impossible mission of holding together a unanimous caucus. And he had to do so with few weapons of formal discipline at his disposal. On the Republican side, committee chairmen are term-limited and will soon enough need to secure support from their colleagues for a new post. That gave them an incentive to stay cooperative and well-liked. Democrats hand these offices out on the basis of pure seniority, depriving the leadership of an important source of glue and cohesiveness.
One’s instincts are that overcoming these challenges required some kind of larger-than-life figure, full of colorful LBJ-style anecdotes, or maybe a figure of overwhelming charisma and popularity. That’s not Harry Reid. But the proof is in the pudding, and from where we sit today the low-key, unassuming, unpopular Senator from Nevada has delivered on the most significant piece of progressive legislation in over 40 years. That ought to be worth the approval of more than 32 percent of the public.
Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.