PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS Democratic leader Harry Reid’s last big political play may be a really negative one.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada last week held conference calls with national political reporters for the ostensible purpose of discussing the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland. Once on the phone with them, however, he unloaded on Donald Trump, prompting a round of headlines like these:

“Reid spoiling for a fight with Trump.”

“Reid: Trump ’Was Born On Third And Thinks He Hit A Triple’.”

“Harry Reid starts the scorched-earth campaign against Donald Trump.”

“Harry Reid Delights In GOP Senators Squirming Over Trump As Nominee.”

One media outlet that was underwhelmed by Reid’s blitz was the New York Times, which ran only a 168-word blog item with the sneering headline, “Harry Reid Assails Donald Trump With Adjectives.”

Reid, who is retiring from the Senate in January, appeared to be planning a role for himself against Trump in the general election campaign, freeing up the Democratic presidential and an as-yet-unnamed vice presidential nominees to take higher roads.

In 2012, many Democrats felt Reid went past lines of good sense and reasonable conduct—even for politics—when, without proof, the senator made wild charges about Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s taxes. Few leading Democrats came to Reid’s aid as negative publicity from left and right inundated the Nevadan (“Harry Reid’s hit on Romney,” RN&R, Sept. 6, 2012). The whole incident gave him a reputation as a rough partisan attack dog.

After Romney released his 2010 return and an abstract of his 2011 return, Reid—who has not released his tax returns since his first, unsuccessful U.S. Senate race in 1974—demanded that Romney release additional years and claimed, “He didn’t pay taxes for 10 years.” When reporters and civil libertarians pointed out that Reid had not provided any proof, he said Romney should disprove the Reid statements, a stance that prompted numerous journalists to call Reid a McCarthyite. Even Human Events, a McCarthyite publication, used the term against Reid.

The 2016 campaign is already expected to be a notably negative one. Both presidential nominees have high negatives before even achieving their parties’ nominations, something that has never been true before. Both are also extremely well known. In most campaigns, such as 2000 when George W. Bush was a new national figure or 2008 when Barack Obama emerged from the back ranks of the Senate to defeat Hillary Clinton, there are usually relative unknowns in the race. This year, that is not the case and neither candidate can use the time-tested strategy of trying to define an opponent before she or he can do it themselves. Clinton and Trump are already highly defined, and not particularly favorably. They are widely expected to tear each other up.

In the conference call, Reid called Trump a racist, anti-woman, anti-Muslim, anti-Latino, anti-immigrant, anti-worker and anti-Obama, and attacked Republican leaders for now looking for ways to kowtow to the billionaire instead of declaring their independence of him.

“It is a sad day for Republicans when they decide to bow to Trump,” Reid said.

If a U.S. senator wanted to retire as a beloved figure, this seems like an odd way to do it. But political analyst Fred Lokken said, “At this point, I think he sees it as a high point. He doesn’t see it as demeaning at all.”

Lokken said a role in a “Stop Trump Movement” for Reid could “spark interest in Democrats” after they failed to turn out at the polls in 2014.

Reid and his fellow Democratic leaders could be faulted for the current state of Republican elective dominance. The lethargy of rank-and-file Democratic voters in 2014 led to terrible party turnout that swept Republicans into offices they had not held for decades. In Nevada, the GOP sweep was the greatest since 1890.

“I can’t think of anyone who has been such a dyed-in-the-wool, committed, pit bull for the Democratic Party that [Reid’s] been,” Lokken said. “He’s been the dominant force in the Nevada Democratic Party.”

Meaning, if there is another failure of Democratic turnout, it likely won’t be Reid’s fault.

So far, Reid has only touched lightly on the issue of Trump’s tax returns, though he may step it up later. The tougher shots at Trump on his taxes have come from, of all people, Mitt Romney—the same Reid target who received sympathy from left and right for Reid’s unsubstantiated charges.

“We have good reason to believe that there’s a bombshell in Donald Trump’s taxes,” Romney told Fox News in February.

“Either he’s not anywhere near as wealthy as he says he is, or he hasn’t been paying taxes we would expect him to pay, or perhaps he hasn’t been giving money to vets or to the disabled like he’s been telling us he’s been doing,” Romney went on.

The dispute drew widespread comment about Romney using the same tactic that had been used on him.

Trump has said he is not yet releasing his tax returns because they are being audited by the Internal Revenue Service, which his tax lawyers have confirmed. It’s not clear why that would prevent him from releasing copies of the returns, however, and IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said Trump, if he chooses, can go ahead and release them while the audits are ongoing.

“What I have said is that even when we are dealing with someone, their tax return is their own possession, and they can do what they would like with it,” Koskinen said at the National Press Club.

“It’s wrong,” Reid said of the audit issue. “It’s a diversion.”

Well, before Trump clinched the nomination, Reid was attacking Republican leaders for creating a political climate that allowed Trump to emerge.

“Republicans created him by spending seven years appealing to some of the darkest forces in America,” Reid said in a March Senate speech.

“Now it’s time for Republicans to undo what they’ve done by denouncing Donald Trump,” he said. “Trump is the GOP’s Frankenstein monster. If the Republicans fail to stop Donald Trump, he’ll tear the party apart even more than it is now.”

However contemptuous Reid may now be of Trump, he didn’t turn down any of the billionaire’s money in earlier years. In 2011, a study by the Center for Responsive Politics found Trump had given money to 96 federal candidates in the previous ten years, and Reid at $10,400 was fourth on the list. Last year, Trump told CNN his contributions were good business: “We have gridlock in Washington, for instance. I’ve helped Nancy Pelosi. I’ve helped Reid. I’m a business.”

Avatar photo

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...