Before his election as Senate Democratic leader on Nov. 16, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada faced an increasingly common feature of the 21st century—an Internet campaign. It produced harsh criticism of Reid of a kind rarely seen in his home state press—from the left.
Bloggers and liberal Web pages called for Reid’s defeat and the election instead of Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Richard Durbin of Illinois, or even Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
One of the first off the mark was the Web page TalkLeft.com, which at 3:35 the day after the election posted this notice: “TalkLeft supports Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, primarily on his record, yet also because he comes from a solidly Democratic state, and Republicans won’t be able to successfully target him for removal the way they did Daschle.”
On one message page hosted by Alternet, a cooperative of alternative newspapers, Alternet staffer Jan Frel wrote one of the most sweeping criticisms of Reid:
“It’s far from a promising sign that Sen. Harry Reid is poised to take the reins of the highest elected office available to the Democratic Party. … George Bush may have the chance to nominate as many as three Justices to the Supreme Court. How could Harry Reid, an anti-choice Mormon, who voted for the ‘partial birth abortion’ ban, be expected to do the best job of making sure that women’s rights are protected? How can Harry Reid be credibly expected to voice the kind of needed opposition to the new terrible Iraq war policies when he voted for the war in the first place? … [H]ow can the millions who just did everything they could to defeat George Bush have faith in a new leader of the Democratic Party … who voted with the Republicans on major issues? Allowing Harry Reid to become Senate Minority Leader would be a sign that the Democratic Party is content to ‘stay the course’ and lose and not address the serious concerns of the growing progressive majority. Reid is an especially poor choice in light of the alternative. The senator who is likely just to become Minority Whip—Sen. Dick Durbin—voted against the war in Iraq, the ‘partial birth abortion’ bill, understands how to conduct judicial filibusters from his experience on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and has delivered tremendous speeches on these subjects on the floor of the Senate for years. He’s a lot closer to what progressives would have hoped for. What a pity.”
Soon liberals in the mainstream press were joining the effort. Columnist Molly Ivins wrote: “Let’s get a battler from a safe blue state who doesn’t have to worry about re-election all the time. I like Harry Reid, but Nevada is not blue, and he’s a little charismatically challenged.”
In the Indianapolis Star, former Washington Week in Review moderator Ken Bode, who once managed a primary election campaign against Reid, wrote that it was another case of Kerry timidity: “As the defeated presidential nominee, Kerry has the right to be considered the party’s titular head. With minority leader Tom Daschle gone, he also had a window of opportunity to claim his party’s leadership in the Senate as minority leader. Instead, he watched as Minority Whip Harry Reid, Daschle’s flunky, gathered the votes to win the job. … Democrats in the Senate have ceded the vitally important post of minority leader to an undistinguished cipher like Harry Reid. In his three terms, Reid mainly has served the mining and gambling interests of Nevada. Most visibly, he fought the establishment of a nuclear waste depository on Yucca Mountain and helped block Indian casinos in California, possible competition to gambling in Reno and Las Vegas. As Congressional Quarterly puts it, Reid has made a record of working with Republicans, reaching across the aisle to shake hands. This is a promotion earned by doing hundreds of small favors for fellow senators. That is not what the Democrats need right now. They need backbone and determination to carry forward the debate begun in this campaign. Reid does not have the charisma, the gravitas, the respect to marshal the opposition to an ambitious Bush agenda.”
The Internet was heating up more and more, even after Durbin accepted the assistant minority leader’s spot, and now Reid’s defenders also spoke up. Author Roger Cadenhead posted a message on his Workbench Web page: “Before Harry Reid of Nevada wins the post when Senate Democrats convene on Nov. 16, we have to bang on our senators to choose Dick Durbin, a strong Democrat and the next-most-likely contender. … We only have 12 days.” Cadenhead posted a list of links to Democratic senators for readers to contact to get them to vote for Durbin.
That provoked a response from Brian Carnell at Brian.Carnell.com: “I was reading Rogers Cadenhead’s books long before I ran into his blog … but for the life of me I can’t understand his latest effort, urging against the election of Harry Reid as the Senate Minority Leader. A number of other liberals such as Kevin Drum are also trying to rally against Reid. But why? … comparing Reid to Daschle is silly. The last time Daschle returned to the Senate, he barely beat challenger John Thune. … Reid, however, enjoyed enormous support, garnering 61 percent of the vote on Tuesday even while Bush won Nevada. Moreover, Reid won’t have to face re-election until 2010, long after Bush is gone. Reid has no reason at all to play the same game that Daschle did.”
Cadenhead later added a new post: “With one week to go, there’s no sign that any liberal group will mount a challenge to the selection of Harry Reid…E-mailing all 45 Democrats in the Senate got me a handful of pleasant form letters. … Reid sounds like a solid red-state Democrat, but anyone who thinks he’ll be a liberal bulwark against the Bush juggernaut should read his official biography, which begins with admiring quotes from Trent Lott and Orrin Hatch and a photo of Reid glad-handing President Reagan.”
Some of the bloggers conceded Reid’s parliamentary skills but wrote that a strong, aggressive leader who will get in George Bush’s face and speak in sharp language is what’s needed now.
This Internet campaign, which was ignored by Nevada’s mainstream press, was trying to buck a victory that Reid had secured within hours after Daschle’s defeat became known. Reid quickly had the votes he needed to be appointed party leader. But other online campaigns have had substantial impact, notably a flood of postings that forced attention on new Federal Communications Commission ownership rules benefiting mainstream journalism outlets. While the online campaign did not stop FCC adoption of the new rules, it did spark awareness in Congress of the issue and generated legislation to reverse the FCC rules.