During the tail end of an interview in July 2012, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was asked about Mitt Romney’s reluctance to release his tax returns. The question was whether, in some hypothetical universe, the Senate would confirm a nominee without further disclosure of his personal finances. “Not a chance, no, not a chance,” Reid said, taking the bait.
And then, without prompting, he went further. First came a deeply personal attack on the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. “His poor father must be so embarrassed about his son.” Then, a truly provocative jab.
"He didn't pay taxes for 10 years!” said Reid, his soft-pitched voice getting more animated.
How did Reid know this? Someone who invested with Bain Capital, Romney’s former private equity firm, had passed along a tip, he said. “Now, do I know that that's true? Well, I'm not certain. But obviously he can't release those tax returns. How would it look?”
This was dirty politics and Reid knew it. But it had its intended outcome. Romney denounced the mysterious, second-hand speculation and demanded that Reid reveal his source. His reaction kept the issue in the spotlight. Days later, Reid would go to the floor of the United States Senate.
“Word is out that he hasn’t paid any taxes for 10 years,” Reid declared, without any acknowledgement that it was he who had put out said word.
Harry Reid is a shit-stirrer. In some respects, you have to be one to get as far as he has. On Friday, he announced he would retire from the Senate rather than campaign for a sixth term, bringing an end to a run that saw him rise from abject poverty in Searchlight, Nevada -- where his dad, a miner, committed suicide by shooting himself in the head -- to the heights of power in Washington, D.C.
But if he were merely a bare-knuckled political brawler, his career would have been shorter and far less interesting. Reid, 75, is a more complex person than the caricature painted by critics. Yes, he can be acerbic. He once described a Democratic member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a “treacherous, miserable liar,” a “first-class rat” who was one of the most “incompetent people I’ve ever dealt with.”
And yes, he has a tendency to make inarticulate and offensive statements. He called fellow Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) "the hottest member of the Senate,” deemed President George W. Bush a “loser,” and recently had a cringe-worthy, racially tinged moment before the Asian Chamber of Commerce.
But he is also one of the great tacticians in modern Senate history, someone who combined a mastery of the rules and a keen recognition of the country’s ideological drift to become one of the most influential political figures of the past six years, second only to President Barack Obama.
Reid’s ability to command loyalty within the Democratic caucus is both exceptional and underappreciated. Obamacare simply would not have gotten passed without him. He maneuvered to get Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to leave the GOP behind and become a Democrat. He sold his colleagues on a bill without a public option, even though he was furious at Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) for killing a variation of it by backing away from his initial support. He personally crafted the abortion language compromise that brought Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) together. And he deftly guided members through the opposition’s tripwire.
Aides recounted one particularly dicey moment when Senate Republicans forced members to vote on reauthorizing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan before they could consider health care legislation. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) was refusing to back the bill, thereby endangering the whole reform effort.
“He didn’t go to Russ and he didn’t try to buttonhole him,” recalled Rodell Mollineau, a former staff director for Reid. “He didn’t try to offer him a bunch of stuff to go against his beliefs. He just said, ‘OK, I understand where you are.’ And then he went into caucus and defended Russ Feingold and said, ‘This is how Russ Feingold feels, this is how he felt. And I stand with him.’”
Feingold was moved enough by the gesture to vote for the authorization in order to get it out of the way and move on to health care.
Part of what helped Reid earn members’ trust was that he knew the institution better than anyone else. He set up a caucus war room in 2005 to help the party adjust to a world where politics was increasingly moving online. He organized a formidable super PAC after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision to take advantage of the newly weakened campaign finance rules, even as he publicly denounced the Court's decision.
In the fall of 2005, stymied by Republicans’ unwillingness to release an intelligence committee report on the alleged existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he devised a plan to essentially grind the Senate to a halt by bringing it into a closed-door session. Republicans were furious. But within hours, they agreed to appoint a panel to report on the intelligence committee’s progress.
“A lot of the times when Harry Reid beat [former Majority Leader] Bill Frist, which was fairly often, what added to the victory was Bill Frist coming out and explaining to reporters how badly he had lost,” said Ari Rabin-Havt, host of "The Agenda" on SiriusXM Radio and Reid's former liaison to the progressive community.
Reid continued to rely on his parliamentary know-how to best his opponents during the Obama years. Aides view his blocking of Republican efforts to outmaneuver him during the government shutdown in October 2013 as a personal triumph -- a showcase of his ability to keep his caucus united while utilizing the procedural tools at his disposal. After it was done, he couldn't help but gloat.
"Ted Cruz is smart," Reid said of the Texas senator who had encouraged his colleagues to close the government unless Obamacare was repealed. "He is now in the Senate. People are as smart as he is … But he has still not accepted that in his own head. He still thinks he's smarter than everybody else. He might be able to work a calculus problem better than I can. But he can't legislate better than I can."
That braggadocio would cause its fair share of friction. Reid has had a good personal relationship with Obama. But during the president’s first term, the two butted heads repeatedly over strategy. Reid and his staff were despondent over a deal cut by the White House to avert a debt-ceiling crisis in the summer of 2011. Since then, they’ve scoffed whenever the president bemoans sequestration, noting that the idea originated with his administration in an attempt to get Republicans off the ledge.
Reid’s team was even more livid when Vice President Joe Biden struck a deal with Senate Republicans to resolve a showdown over the expiring Bush-era tax cuts, saying it removed leverage that could have been used in future budget negotiations.
The administration, for its part, believed Reid underappreciated the political dangers of these moments and over-promised on the results. Eventually, however, the president moved toward his point of view.
"We just both came to the conclusion that the time had ended to be taken in by these crazy people," Reid said after the government shutdown ended. "The president said, 'I'm not going to negotiate.' I said, 'I'm not going to negotiate.' And we didn't."
But Reid moved as well, ideologically and tactically. After years of resistance, he irrevocably changed the Senate by ushering in filibuster reform. He became more progressive over time, too -- endorsing far-reaching gun control measures that he once opposed, embracing liberal tax policy and becoming a full-bore advocate for women’s issues (and for elevating women lawmakers).
He embraced his party’s liberal roots, even as others viewed them warily. In 2006, he signed on to speak at the first YearlyKos convention in Las Vegas, a gathering of progressive activists now known as Netroots Nation. According to Rabin-Havt, a staffer encouraged Reid to take the opportunity to have a “Sister Souljah moment” with the blogging community – to essentially call the left out to its face. “I have never seen a more adverse reaction to an idea,” Rabin-Havt said. “It wasn’t about the strategy. It is about the idea that you would be so duplicitous about that. ‘I’m not going to play a game like that,’ he said.”
As time went on, Reid would also publicly grapple with what he viewed as the missteps of his earlier years, albeit in a decidedly backhanded way. He apologized for his vote for the Iraq war, for instance, by saying he was sorry that he had been misled.
That irascibility was still there even after Democrats lost control of the Senate last fall. Reid remained feisty on the floor, using procedural means to get Democrats wins, most notably in averting a government shutdown over funding for the Department of Homeland Security.
Advisers and former aides assumed he would run again, even after breaking his ribs and severely injuring his eye during an exercise accident in January. One suggested to this reporter just four days ago that an upcoming speech to the Nevada Legislature would serve as a first step toward his re-election campaign.
His decision was a "surprise to many," said Penny Lee, a former senior Reid aide who's now at the firm Venn Strategies.
Reid broke the news to his staff this past week, not in one group conversation but in individual meetings with many of the senior members. The talks were personal and poignant, described as "one gut punch after another."
"One thing that is always said of him is how intensely loyal he is to his family, but also to his extended family, his staff," said Murshed Zaheed, a former Reid digital adviser. "He treated you with a sense of respect and decency that is honestly not common on the Hill."
The Huffington Post has spoken with Reid several times since that memorable July 2012 interview. And during each conversation, we've asked him to reveal name of the person who told him that Romney didn't pay his taxes for a decade. Each time he has smiled slightly, paused, and then graciously declined.