Harry Reid and Shelley Berkley are learning from Andrew Jackson.
In 1824, when Jackson ran for president, the election wound up in the House of Representatives. Speaker Henry Clay helped engineer John Quincy Adams’ election, then became his secretary of state. Jackson accused them of a corrupt bargain and vowed vengeance in the next election.
He got it, partly by knowing how to win the votes he needed—his campaign accused Adams of pimping for the Russian czar. Reid and Berkley get it, too: when the other side attacks you, fairly or not, respond—and not just by trying to prove the allegations wrong.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Reid said an investor from Bain Capital told him why Mitt Romney won’t release his tax returns: he didn’t pay taxes for the decade in question.
Reid is no stranger to gamesmanship. Also, we tend to forget he’s a lawyer. When he practiced, he was good at it. Yes, Reid takes hits for some of his seemingly off-script comments. But politicians, like many others in all walks of life, cultivate a persona. Anyone knowledgeable about Congress will say, love or hate Reid, he’s a backroom operator par excellence. Remember this rule of life: It’s the ones who try to seem out of it who usually are the most with it.
So, Reid ratcheted up the pressure on Romney, who faced the revival of questions of whether he even paid taxes and why he wouldn’t release more than two years’ worth of returns. All this came on the heels of Romney’s trip overseas, where he revealed the dexterity of Inspector Clouseau without the genius. Reid may strike his critics as more like Clouseau, but the detective he resembles more closely is Columbo: relentless and shrewd, even when he seems otherwise. Especially when he seems otherwise.
Meanwhile, Berkley has faced an ethics investigation about her support of a kidney transplant center from which her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, was in a position to benefit. Once Republicans began their attack, she countered with ads showing kidney patients who benefited from her efforts. She also ramped up the ads attacking her opponent Dean Heller as the only person in Congress to vote twice to destroy Medicare by supporting Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan in both the House and the Senate.
None of this means Berkley is safe, or right, or winning. But, as Jackson realized in 1828, the best defense is a good offense.
You may think that cheapens politics and public discourse. That would be a fair statement if anything remained to cheapen.
Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.