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The Trouble with Harry

Harry Reid's strategic errors hurt the Democrats

Congress's approval rating is even lower than President Bush's--it's at 23 percent according to the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll. And, in another poll, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's favorability rating is down there with Scooter Libby--at 19 percent. Some Democrats blame their low standing with the public on the difficulties inherent in controlling Congress when the opposition party controls the White House. The fact is that the Democrats, with only a 50-49 majority, do not have enough votes to override White House vetoes or even to stop a Republican filibuster. But Democrats have been in this situation before, and, while they were unable to get their bills signed, they were able to place the onus of failure on the White House and on the Republicans.

If Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi want guidance, they should look back at what the Democrats did during the presidential term of George H.W. Bush. The Democrats had a brilliant Senate majority leader, George Mitchell, and a competent House speaker, Tom Foley, who generally deferred to Mitchell. Mitchell and Foley forced Bush to veto popular bills that also enjoyed some Republican support in Congress. They showed up Bush as a heartless extremist and split his own party. And they handed Democrat Bill Clinton a platform on which to run in the fall of 1992.

During his term, Mitchell and Foley sent Bush 36 pieces of legislation that he vetoed. These included the Family and Medical Leave Act, tax relief and urban aid (in the wake of the Los Angeles riots), extended jobless benefits (during a recession), a crime bill, the removal of a Bush administration ban on federal funding of fetal tissue research (which had been instrumental to discovering a polio vaccine), a bill removing the gag rule that forbade federally funded family planning counselors from discussing abortion, a bill regulating cable rates, and a campaign finance measure.

The bills themselves were sufficiently modest to win support from moderate Republicans like Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter or Oregon's Mark Hatfield. Mitchell, for instance, didn't bring a national health insurance bill to a vote, even though some Democrats were touting a "pay or play" measure. Instead, he focused on the Family and Medical Leave Act, which granted unpaid medical leave in the case of sickness of childbirth to workers in large businesses. It won moderate Republican as well as Democratic support. In September 1992, when the Senate overrode Bush's veto by 68 to 31, twelve Republicans voted for it, including Arizona Senator John McCain.

The Democratic bills also contained poison pills that tempted a Bush veto. The crime bill, for instance, expanded funds for law enforcement, but also included the Brady bill imposing a waiting period for handgun purchases. The tax relief bill contained an increase in upper-income rates. The bills won Republican as well as Democratic support, and when Bush finally vetoed them, he was seen as giving into special-interest objections to minor provisions in the bills.

Mitchell and Foley also had to pass some controversial legislation that was bound to alienate parts of the electorate. But they made sure that Bush and the Republicans were clearly identified with what was unpopular. In the fall of 1990, in the face of mounting budget deficits, the Democrats, with House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt taking the lead, negotiated a budget agreement with the White House that included tax increases. That sparked a revolt among the House Republicans and was later a factor in Pat Buchanan's primary challenge to Bush in 1992. The Democrats escaped from the budget battle with their reputation intact. But Bush's presidency was wounded.

The current Democratic leaders have only been in charge for half a year, but so far their record is at best mixed. Pelosi has avoided disasters, but Reid stumbled badly in managing the Iraq war votes. That may not be surprising. Foreign policy is notoriously difficult for Congress to deal with. And Mitchell had his own problems with the Senate vote in January 1991 on the first Gulf War. But Reid's tactics succeeded in splitting his own party, uniting the opposition, and potentially undermining his party's presidential candidates.

The president, of course, has the main responsibility for foreign policy. Faced with major decisions, Congress has ordinarily limited itself to holding hearings and registering disapproval, as Congressional Democrats and Republicans did over the Vietnam War during the Nixon administration. By reinforcing public opposition, these kind of measures can significantly affect White House decision making. Congress can theoretically prevent a president from going to war or force a withdrawal by withholding spending, but that is an extremely blunt instrument that precludes any kind of sophisticated strategy toward an adversary. When a war is in progress, it also opens legislators to charges of defunding the troops in the field.

Reid and Pelosi initially followed a careful strategy of passing measures, with some Republican support, that registered disapproval of the administration's conduct of the war. In April, the Senate passed a measure 51 to 46, with support from Republicans Chuck Hagel and Gordon Smith, setting non-binding timelines for withdrawal and laying out benchmarks for success. The measure put the White House on the defensive and forced Bush's first veto. But after failing to override Bush's veto, Reid, heeding cries from the party's left, upped the ante by proposing a measure that would force a withdrawal by cutting off funds. That measure lost by 67 to 29. It got no Republican votes and was opposed by 19 Democrats, including Virginia Senator Jim Webb, who earlier had been a leader of the opposition to the administration's "surge" strategy.

Besides dividing his own party, Reid's measure also put presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in a bind. In a general election, the Democrats want to be able to paint the opposition as recklessly endangering Americans through prolonging the war in Iraq. They don't need to advocate and defend an ambitious and potentially reckless plan of their own for immediate withdrawal. And, indeed, a position favoring a staged retreat combined with diplomacy would serve the Democrats best if they were actually to win the White House.

But, with former war supporter John Edwards and the leftwing netroots clamoring for immediate withdrawal, and with Senate rival Chris Dodd running ads favoring the Reid proposal, Clinton and Obama were forced to choose between a position that would be popular with Democratic primary voters and a more calibrated position that would serve them well in a general election and that would avoid charges of defunding the troops. They chose to join Reid--a vote that could come back to haunt one of them in November 2008. If Reid had been doing his job well, he would have either kept the measure off the floor entirely or made sure that it was seen as marginal and backed by only a handful of anti-war Democrats. Instead, he put his imprimatur on it.

Reid is far from incompetent. After the 2004 election, he almost single-handedly killed the Bush administration's effort at privatizing social security. And he has followed in Mitchell's footsteps in his handling of the immigration bill. That bill, like the 1990 budget act, is a compilation of controversial measures that will alternately win support and provoke opposition. Politically speaking, the Democrats want to win credit among Latino voters for backing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but they want to avoid being blamed by white working-class voters in the Midwest and Southwest for favoring citizenship for illegal immigrants and a large guest-worker program. If the bill passes, they want these voters to blame Bush and Republicans for these provisions.

It will be difficult for the Democrats to pull off this political sleight of hand, but so far Reid has been remarkably successful. By branding the measure "the President's bill," Reid has ensured that the Republicans get the blame for supporting the provisions and for failing to pass the bill itself. Hispanic voters are angry with the Republicans for holding up the vote on the bill. And the Republican base is angry with the White House for supporting the bill. When Reid yanked the bill off the floor for the lack of Republican support, that was a defeat for immigration reform, but a political victory for the Democrats. With the measure returning to the floor this week, Reid will have to continue his magic act.

Pelosi has fared somewhat better than Reid, but that is probably because she has managed so far to avoid the spotlight on Iraq and immigration. But neither Reid nor Pelosi have yet devised the kind of measures that Mitchell and Foley used in 1991 and 1992 to win public support for the Democrats and to split the Republicans. Most of what they have passed from their election agenda--including minimum wage and a watered-down lobbying-reform bill--will quietly be enacted into law. Except for a measure funding stem-cell research, they haven't come up with anything comparable to Family and Medical Leave. If they want to put the Democrats in a good position to retain Congress and win the White House, they had better start thinking. And they had better avoid initiatives that divide their own party and unite the opposition.