Harry Reid began last week in familiar fashion, by detonating an improvised literary device on the Senate floor. It bombed.
Instead of merely scolding Republicans for their filibuster of the health-care legislation, he compared them to slaveholders and racists. "You think you've heard these same excuses before? You're right," the Senate majority leader proclaimed. "There were those who dug in their heels and said, 'Slow down, it's too early, let's wait, things aren't bad enough' about slavery. ... When this body was on the verge of guaranteeing civil rights to everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, some senators resorted to the same filibuster threats that we hear today."
Predictably, these words shifted the debate away from health care and toward Reid's mouth — which for Democrats is not a safe place.
It was not the first time that Senate Democrats found themselves subject to Reid's whims. As the Nevada Democrat struggles to persuade voters in his home state to give him a fifth term next year, his re-election fight has become a dominant theme in the Capitol and throughout the federal government. To borrow a Reid metaphor, you might even say it's enslaving the Democrats.
Take the case of the ill-fated "public option" in the health-care bill. Everybody, including Reid, knew the idea didn't have enough votes to clear the Senate. But Reid called a solo news conference and announced that he was including the proposal anyway. The reason was clear: The attempt would excite his Democratic base in Nevada, which would give him credit for trying even when the plan ultimately failed, as it did last week. But Reid seemed not to have considered, or cared about, the collateral damage: forcing moderate Democrats such as Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas to cast a procedural vote in favor of the public option that could prove ruinous to their own careers — and to the party's majority.
Democratic colleagues on the Hill and in the Obama administration, meanwhile, have been rallying the full faith and credit of the U.S. government behind his campaign. House Democrats invited him to testify at a hearing on Nevada workplace safety. Senate Democrats invited him to testify about tourism in Las Vegas. In a six-month period this year, no fewer than seven Cabinet members, the vice president and the president have traipsed to Nevada to promote the majority leader, often bringing gifts such as high-speed rail that links Las Vegas to Los Angeles, renewable energy projects and fund-raisers for Reid's campaign.
What's driving this federal mobilization? A Mason-Dixon poll for the Las Vegas Review-Journal this month found Reid's approval rating at just 38 percent because of low marks from Republicans (5 percent favor him) and independents (37 percent). That means that he needs to motivate Democrats, who slightly outnumber Republicans in Nevada and support Reid at a rate of 75 percent.
Reid "needs to shore up and bond with his base," says political handicapper Charlie Cook.
That could explain Reid's vote last week with abortion-rights senators on an amendment to the health bill, even though he is usually anti-abortion. And there's probably more of that to come: Reid has been pushing for rapid action on immigration reform and has written to President Barack Obama urging quick repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
But as his public-option gambit demonstrated, merely dangling proposals, regardless of how meritorious they may be, doesn't cause them to become law — and it may cause Democrats from more conservative states, such as Lincoln's Arkansas, to lose their jobs.
Democratic senators like their leader because of his personal touch (he spoke individually with all 59 members of his caucus when drafting the health-care bill), and they tolerate his rhetorical flourishes. Just before his slavery mishap, he tried to discredit David S. Broder, a twice-weekly Washington Post columnist (whose latest, unrelated column appears above), by calling him "a man who has been retired for many years and who writes a column once in a while." In the past, he called the chairman of the Federal Reserve a "hack," President George W. Bush a "loser" and the war in Iraq "lost."
But after spending so much energy on Reid's re-election — and before that, the failed re-election bid of Democratic leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota — Democrats may conclude that it's better to have a leader from a safe state where parochial concerns won't interfere as much. Both of Reid's would-be replacements, New York's Chuck Schumer and Illinois' Dick Durbin, fit the bill.
Reid spokesman Jim Manley says the senator "makes no apologies for always looking out for the people of Nevada," and he has indeed used his clout to keep nuclear waste away from Yucca Mountain and to protect Las Vegas from online gambling. That's good constituent service, and the 400,000 registered Democrats of Nevada deserve to be represented — but in a nation of 300 million, the Senate majority leader needs to think bigger.
Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.
THE WASHINGTON POST