Along the Tracks

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

In praise of Harry Reid

Since the defeat of the former Democratic Senate Minority Leader, Tom Daschle, just under a year ago, I have been most unimpressed by his replacement, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.

Until now, that is.

This week, Reid has demonstrated a mastery of political rope-a-dope which should secure his leadership position for as long as he wants it. Forget the weak delivery, personal attacks and ineffective opposition to the Republican majority. Reid’s coup has changed the Washington political dynamic and, perhaps, crippled the second term of the Bush presidency.

I speak of the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

Many do not perceive Reid’s subtle intrigue in this matter, which makes it all that more impressive. Yet it is there, as plain as a bloody nose. Reid has set up the White House and Republicans for a defeat which will have implications in the ’06 congressional elections as well as the ’08 presidential contest.

How so?

When Bush did the “walk-through” meetings with Senate Democrats on his Supreme Court nomination to replace Sandra Day O’Conner, he apparently tossed out a few names to allow the Dems to weigh in – even though he probably had no intention of following their advice if it contradicted his own judgment.

Reid saw an opportunity, and took it. He affirmed his support for the nomination of Miers.

Folks, this is a clever man.

Bush may or may not have intended to name Miers before that point , but this sudden unexpected blessing by the top Democrat may well have sealed the deal. Bush (and I’m sure Karl Rove wasn’t far behind) saw an opportunity for a quick-and-easy Senate confirmation of a close friend and conservative. After the big approval, he could move on to the meat-and-potatoes of his second term domestic agenda: taxes, Social Security reform, etc. It was like a poker game in which the opponent folded after the ante.

Wrong analogy, Mr. President.

A better comparison is found in the boxing ring, where Reid clearly learned moves that are applicable in politics. By backing up to the ropes defensively and allowing Bush to score a few ineffective jabs, Reid has suckered the president into dropping his gloves and leading with his chin.

Let’s face it: Bush has named a crony to the Supreme Court. This is no knock on Miers, who may well be a highly-skilled, deep-thinking conservative lawyer. Still, that’s not what she’s known for – if she’s known at all. Rather, she is a part of Bush’s inner circle whose experience outside his good graces amounts to running a law firm and serving a city council term – honorable and in their own way impressive lines on a resume, but hardly unique qualifications to the highest court in the land.

By getting Bush to name such a lackluster candidate, Reid has set the stage for a major Bush defeat – the only way such a defeat could even occur: A Republican revolt.

What’s more, such a defeat would deal a knockout punch to the Bush agenda and fracture the GOP, opening opportunities for Democrats in ’06 and ’08.

Will Reid be able to pull it off? Does he have a haymaker ready?

It depends on his ability to control his fellow Democrats. Sure, many liberals will want to oppose Miers for the same reasons they opposed Roberts – and the public expects that. However, Democrats must be disciplined enough to lay back and allow the Republican opposition grow into a force. At that point, Reid can call in his Democratic votes and join them to the six or 10 or 25 Republicans who refuse to elevate someone merely because she is a Bush pal. Only the Senate Republicans can stop Bush, and if the Democrats hold their punches until that final moment, Reid can deliver the knockout.

Last night on “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer,” I saw Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, as strong an anti-Bush Democrat as exists, say that he felt Miers’ relationship to the president was a “neutral quality.” I’ve gotta believe he got the memo from Reid. If all the Democrats can take a similar, non-committal approach and let the GOP internal argument build, they will win this fight.

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