It seems odd that Harry Reid, whose generally dispassionate manner probably strikes the casual listener as plain and boring, now enjoys a reputation as a hothead.
Of course, it’s not the way he talks, but the words that occasionally slip from his mouth that have fed the right’s bid to caricature him as an unstable fringe figure: the erratic, America-hating lefty who called President Bush a loser and a liar and who said the war in Iraq is lost.
Mr. Reid makes no apologies for his periodic bursts of candor, which he suggests simply mark him as a no-B.S. guy. But, other than on the Senate floor and at obligatory press briefings, Democrats do not showcase “Give ‘em hell Harry,” and he is largely absent from the talk show circuit. It’s tempting to conclude that this represents a risk-minimization strategy by the Democrats, who fear Mr. Reid is never more than a sentence or two from provoking some kind of media firestorm. In reality, though, the main problem with Mr. Reid as the public face of the party is that, most of the time, he just comes across like any other aging and bloodless creature of the Senate.
He reminded us of this yesterday, when he made what host Bob Schieffer proudly billed as a rare Sunday morning television appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” In such a setting, Mr. Reid demonstrated that his drab demeanor can be both a blessing and a curse for his party. It’s a blessing because he’s never too “hot” for what is a famously cool medium, and a curse because there’s little in that style to differentiate him from his fellow politicians and, thus, to grab the attention of the casual viewer.
For a good chunk of his ten-or-so-minute segment yesterday, Mr. Reid plodded through Mr. Schieffer’s queries about last week’s Senate debate on Iraq, sometimes getting bogged down in the confusing language of Senate procedure—tossing out, for instance, references to unanimous consent requests and the “so-called manager’s amendment.”
This is not entirely his fault, since the war debate in the Senate is as much about legislative tactics as it is the war itself, and Mr. Reid stands accused by the G.O.P.of stifling their attempts to offer Iraq legislation of their own. It’s only reasonable that Mr. Reid would defend himself, and his fellow Democrats. But, if anything, he demonstrated the futility of engaging in a he said/she said debate over procedure, given how little the broad public knows (or cares to know) about legislative mechanics.
It’s nearly beside the point, from a public relations perspective, that Mr. Reid’s case is strong on the merits. Senate Republicans complain that he wouldn’t permit consideration last week of Iraq amendments that might have attracted substantial Republican support, even as they adamantly refused to lift their threat of a filibuster of an amendment that would have created a troop redeployment timetable—an amendment that enjoyed the backing of a majority of Senators, but not the 60 needed to break a filibuster. And so no votes on actual course change legislation were taken in the Senate last week—only votes on whether there should be votes.
Mr. Reid pleaded with Mr. Schieffer about the unreasonableness of the GOP’s legislative blockade, saying: “I offered on many occasions – not one, two, three, four occasions – many occasions said, ‘Let's vote on all the Iraq amendments – all of them – and have a simple majority for them.' The Republicans wouldn't let us.”
In fact, Mr. Reid’s responses to Mr. Schieffer’s questions about, say, last week’s National Intelligence Estimate, or whether Democrats have a plan to check Iran’s influence in the Middle East, or possible military action in Pakistan, were all generally sound and concise expressions of the prevailing mood of his party.
For instance, here is how Mr. Reid confronted Republican efforts to tag the Democrats’ troop redeployment push as a “precipitous withdrawal:
“There should be a redeployment and after May 1st of next year all American troops should be out of there except those dealing with counterterrorism, training Iraqis, and protecting our assets. No precipitous withdrawal. But academics and military people say Iraq is in chaos right now. Al-Qaeda has an enemy, it's the United States. Even Iraqis, by a 70 percent margin, think that Americans in Iraq are doing more harm than good. So getting the Americans out of Iraq, except for those troops that I've just talked about, I think would lessen chaos rather than increase it.
But the marketing principal of “it’s not what you’re selling, but how you sell it” applies to politics, and there’s not much in Mr. Reid’s game to convince someone who doesn’t already know and like his product to buy in.
It wasn’t until the tail end of his segment that Mr. Reid emerged for the audience a colorful, three-dimensional figure—ironically by straying into the very territory that has earned him the loose-cannon label.
Mr. Schieffer brought up Mr. Reid’s past statements about President Bush, noting that the Majority Leader had apologized for calling Mr. Bush “a loser”—but not for calling him “a liar.” Do you still think he’s a liar, Mr. Schieffer inquired.
“Well, Bob, when I have dealings with people and they tell me one thing and do something else, they're not telling the truth, what else do you have to call them?” Mr. Reid replied, adding that he still likes the president personally. That prompted a follow-up from an incredulous Mr. Schieffer, who wondered if those sentiments weren’t at odds with each other.
“I call them the way I see them,” said Mr. Reid. “I mean, I thought Alan Greenspan—when they asked me about him—I said I thought he was the biggest political hack in Washington. That's how I felt. Why shouldn't I say that?”
At that, a bemused Mr. Schieffer decided to offer the floor to Mr. Reid, inviting the Majority Leader “to take off on” anyone else he desired to. Mr. Reid declined, but noted that “if it comes to my mind and I feel like answering a question, I should do it honestly. I'm going to continue to do that.” Thus ended the segment.
It may be the only thing anyone remembers from Harry Reid’s visit to “Face the Nation.”