Some of Sen. Reid’s critics say the qualities he employed during a Republican presidency are not the ones needed for a Democratic president.

For months, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada has been nibbled to death by ducks.

All over the blogosphere and even in the mainstream press, there has been chatter about his leaving the Senate majority leadership—either by jumping or being pushed.

The candidate to replace him? The most frequently cited name is none other than Hillary Clinton. There’s even a website (http://tdg.typepad.com/hrcsenatemajorleader09/) urging her election as leader.

For a long time, most of the references to Reid leaving the Democratic leader’s post were in the liberal political blogsphere he has done so much to cultivate. But more recently, the notion has moved into the mainstream. Time magazine’s first post-election edition had a reference to it: “What becomes now of Hillary Clinton? Will she run again for President? Make a bid for Senate majority leader?” National Journal, a bible for inside-the-beltway policy wonks, had a pre-election piece devoted to the idea:

“He [Reid] is well liked by the sometimes fractious, ideologically diverse 48 other Democrats and two independents who caucus with them. But Reid’s tendency to pop off and his hyperpartisanship can be liabilities. Even as the Senate on October 1 easily passed sweeping legislation to rescue the financial markets, Reid has been less than nimble throughout the process. … [W]hen a new administration takes office next year, along with a likely Democratic-controlled Congress, the Senate will be the center of action.

“Reid is a tenacious fighter, but different skills may be needed in his chamber, where reaching across the aisle is required to prevent a determined minority from wreaking havoc. In the House, by contrast, the rules give [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi the power to steamroll the minority. ‘Harry Reid,’ a Democratic strategist said, ‘is a team player, services his members well, and knows the institution.’ But, the strategist added, a Senate leader must be ‘someone who inspires confidence, who can advance an agenda and a message, and who can both contribute to and execute a strategy. That is just not Harry Reid’s strong suit.’ “

This week in the Los Angeles Times, Andy Malcolm wrote, “Yes, Reid’s crabby. Yes, he’s vituperative and whatever you call the opposite of bipartisan—maybe pro-anti-bipartisan—which would hardly seem to fit with the outlined ‘change you can believe in’ goal of his party’s titular leader, Barack Obama. And Reid’s not given any indication he’s going anywhere. Not before his re-election in 2010, anyway.”

Malcolm reported on an email appeal Clinton sent out to raise money for three Democratic senate candidates: “The former first lady probably didn’t have room in the e-mail to mention that if this new trio gets elected, whom do you think they will feel allegiance to if, God forbid, someday Reid should lose back home or if, as impossible as it seems right now, there ever is an internal challenge to the crusty Reid?”

While a Clinton challenge to Reid may never materialize, the persistence of the idea suggests that there are doubts about Reid in the political atmosphere.

There aren’t that many legislative achievements for the Democrats to point to since Reid became leader, which was often a function of Bush’s veto. When asked, Reid mentions stopping the Bush plans for Social Security. Most of Reid’s personal achievements, such as the creation of Great Basin National Park or the Truckee River settlement, were either accomplished or set in motion before he joined the Democratic leadership. A case can be made that being leader has hampered his ability to function as a legislator.

After Reid drew fierce attacks from Richard Cheney and other Republicans when he said “This war is lost” on April 19, 2007, every Democrat in the Senate signed a letter supporting him.

But supporting their leader against Republicans is not necessarily the same thing as supporting him against another Democrat. Even in the “war is lost” dispute, some senators said that while they supported Reid, that didn’t necessarily make them comfortable with his verbiage. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (chaired by Nevada’s junior senator, John Ensign) ran ads challenging several Democratic senators facing reelection to say whether they agreed with Reid’s “reckless moves for political gain.”

One of those senators, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, put some distance between herself and Reid.

“I do not agree that the war is lost,” Landrieu said in a statement. “It clearly has yet to be won, which is why we need new benchmarks and goals to measure a path to success. The administration’s mismanagement of the situation in Iraq has been a great tragedy. But when American troops are in the field, we must never—ever—accept defeat as an option.”

An important issue, if this becomes a real eventuality, is Barack Obama’s position. He can certainly heal any hard feelings left over from the campaign by helping Clinton become floor leader, but is he prepared to trust the fate of his legislative program to his former rival? Moreover, his view of the Democratic caucus’s irritation with McCain supporter Joe Lieberman suggests Obama would like to hold down the number of intraparty disputes.

U.S. News & World Report’s Bonnie Erbe questions whether Obama could even deliver for Clinton: “What about Senate majority leader? With major gains in the U.S. Senate, one can hardly envision even a President-elect Obama wresting that prize from Harry Reid’s possession.”

And what of Clinton? When Sen. Edward Kennedy ran for and won the post of assistant Democratic leader in 1969, the most pronounced reaction in political circles was, “Why does he need it?” Clinton is in much the same situation. Her celebrity gives her a platform no party post can give her, and holding it could limit her political freedom of movement. At the moment, there is speculation of Obama naming Clinton as secretary of state or defense.

Two years ago, popular political blogger and former congressional staffer Steve Clemons wrote in August 2006: “First of all, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, whom most give high marks for the manner in which he has stewarded the Dems in the Senate despite the absence of a clear Democratic Party chief, has sent private signals to Senator Hillary Clinton and other stalwarts of the party that he ‘would like to’ step down from his post in early 2009. Reid has not stated definitively that he will—but he apparently prefers ‘whipping’ the Party from behind and the side rather than serving as commander-in-chief on the Senate floor. What Reid is offering Senator Hillary Clinton is his total, robust support to succeed him as Senate Majority Leader if she elects not to pursue the Democratic nomination for President.”

Clemons seems to have been the only one who detected this arrangement, which was never heard of again, but he has returned to the subject of Clinton as majority leader more than once.

Reid, who as Democratic whip seemed to be every Republican’s favorite Democrat, became a Republican devil when he moved up to leader. After a few months in the job, he was asked whether, given his position on things like the bankruptcy bill, abortion, and Theresa Schiavo, he was too conservative for the post. He responded, “Well, 44 Democrats don’t think so.” That may be part of his problem. He regards his constituency as solely the members of the Democratic caucus, with the result that there is serious question whether he is really a national party leader.

One thing that could affect the whole matter is his handling of the rest of this Congress. Until the first of the year, Reid still has only a one vote margin in the Senate, at a time when Democrats are saying they can’t wait until the next Congress to act on the economy. In the weeks ahead, Reid may be auditioning for the job he already holds.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...