Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid likes to reminisce about being an amateur boxer. But his Senate tenure has often looked like an endless rope-a-dope.
Democrats could be better off if the Nevada senator loses his reelection bid, since his efforts to lead the party are saddled by the precarious politics of his conservative swing state.
Maybe that's why he's been pulling his punches.
Republicans clobbered Reid for undermining democracy in the health care debate but rarely faced counterpunches for their filibusters. Individual senators held up entire bills without any detectable fear of one of the three most powerful Democrats in the country.
So much fight was drained from Reid by the first session of this Congress, he didn't even bother bluffing anymore.
"I'm not very good at twisting arms -- I try to be more verbal and nonthreatening," Reid told CQ, discussing how he kept his caucus in line. "I hold no grudges," he added. In case anyone was wondering.
Then something happened.
In just the past few weeks, Reid launched his strongest attack ever on GOP filibusters. He blasted obstructionist tactics as "un-American" and demanded colleagues come to the floor for a barrage of cloture votes. Apart from nominations, a striking 42 percent of the Senate votes in April were on cloture alone.
Obstruction takes time. Now it's a bit more visible.
That behavior is miles from last year's, when Reid's staff was defending the status quo on obstruction. His office even released a memo explaining why there was supposedly no way of forcing senators to make good on filibuster threats. (The February 2009 memo was titled "How Cloture Rule Allows Minority to Block Legislation Without Actual Filibustering.")
Reid is also newly aggressive on policy.
Instead of quailing before the supposedly prickly issue of immigration, Reid pivoted off Arizona's drama to propose a framework for national reform. That move even prompted President Barack Obama to walk back his bearish comments about an overhaul.
Reid's procedural and policy tear is drawing some praise from progressives. Playing "hardball" helped the senator "get his groove back," said Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo, citing plaudits from labor leaders and former party Chairman Howard Dean.
But let's get serious: This groove probably won't last.
Reid's governing shift came right as he kicked off his reelection campaign in early April. Confronting Republicans can definitely mobilize a disaffected Democratic base. If Reid comes back from his current poll deficit, however, he could just slip back to his old ways after November.
If Reid does lose, the Democrats could be better off, anyway.
That's what Obama once said, albeit as a character on "Saturday Night Live," in a March sketch that caricatured Reid as a pushover who barely fought to defend his own record. It's hard to be a national punch line unless lots of voters have soured on you.
In national polls, Reid's net unfavorable-to-favorable rating ranges from 7 to 21 points. His struggles to unite the Democratic Caucus are legion. Like his predecessor, another gentle Democrat who proved more popular with colleagues than with voters, Reid lives in a tough state for Democrats. Former Majority Leader Tom Daschle was stuck defending the national Democratic brand in the bright red state of South Dakota. Reid's Nevada is a conservative swing state.
It may sound arcane, but geography plays a big role in the incentive structure for party management.
By choosing leaders outside the party's home turf, Senate Democrats up the odds that their standard-bearers will be distracted by close races -- caught between the politics of their constituents and the national party.
The modern GOP, by contrast, does not take such risks.
For example, few states better reflect today's Republican Party than Kentucky, home to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. A whopping 112 of its 120 counties backed Sen. John McCain in 2008.
The GOP's last four majority leaders were from the red states of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kansas. For the Democrats, it has been South Dakota, West Virginia, Montana and Maine, the only dollop of blue.
Reid's likely replacements, however, both hail from two of the party's greatest strongholds.
New York's Chuck Schumer and Illinois's Dick Durbin would have far fewer political worries than Reid -- and more bandwidth to focus on the caucus's priorities and passing Obama's agenda.
These two deputies to Reid, who happen to share a house in Washington, are now clearly jockeying to replace the majority leader. Both are also known for more assertive party leadership and more liberal domestic agendas than their Nevada counterpart.
In other words, for Democrats, either one would be an improvement over Reid. Everyone's just waiting to see if he's finally down for the count.
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