Harry Reid’s critics insist that he is both an evil genius and an incompetent boob. That doesn’t explain how he rose from a Searchlight mining shack to become the U.S. Senate’s most powerful member. But as an admirer of Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Reid is no doubt familiar with Branch Rickey, the Dodgers general manager who signed Robinson. Rickey had a favorite phrase: Luck is the residue of design.
So it is with Reid: He makes his own breaks—and takes advantage of them. That’s what he did in 2013:
• The House Republican majority teamed with a few right-wing senators to shut down the government and bring the nation to the brink of breaching the debt ceiling. The last time matters looked this dire, Vice President Joe Biden went around the Senate majority leader and made a deal with Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, that raised tax rates for those making at least $400,000 a year in a way that somehow defined those making $399,999 as somehow not wealthy.
This time, Reid opposed concessions and told the White House to keep Biden out of it. In the end, the U.S. government shut down and Republicans finally gave up after a deal in which Reid gave them nothing substantial and created several pegs on which to hang future political ads. Democrats around the country hailed Reid’s spine, as if they just discovered it.
• Late this year, Reid took a significant step against Republican obstructionism, introducing a rule change to allow a simple majority of the Senate (rather than a supermajority of 60) to green-light a vote on executive appointees and federal district and appellate judges (but not Supreme Court justices). Almost as many Obama appointees have been blocked through cloture motions—the proper term for what is commonly called the filibuster—as there were for his 11 predecessors combined. The move doesn’t eliminate the GOP’s ability to block the president’s nominees, but it reduces needless gridlock. Now whichever party is in the majority will find it easier to make appointments that reflect the will of that majority. That’s better for everybody.
• A recently commissioned poll shows Assemblywoman Lucy Flores with a good chance to become the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. The poll signals Democrats that they can and should fall in behind Flores.
Why is that good for Reid? Anybody who follows politics expects Governor Brian Sandoval to be re-elected—or, more presciently, if re-elected, to try to leave the governor’s office for greener pastures during his second term. If Flores wins, she becomes an issue to use against Sandoval: Do Republicans want him to leave the state in the hands of a Democrat?
If Sandoval leaves anyway and takes a run at Reid for the Senate in 2016, Reid still has an advantage: Governor Flores would help Reid solidify his already strong support from two key constituencies, women and Latinos.
• The beltway media actually made Reid look better than the average Washington politician this year. Mark Leibovich, a fine longtime political correspondent, published This Town, about the essential phoniness of Washington, D.C. And Double Down by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann professed to go inside the 2012 campaigns, much as their 2008 Game Change did. In both books, amid an endless array of backslapping capital fakery, what emerged about Reid was the tagline of the late comedian Flip Wilson: What you see is what you get.
And 2013 served as a reminder of his power and importance at home and in the nation’s capital. Worse things could be said about the year that was.
Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.