It’s a question few in the Senate will ask aloud but one that’s creeping into the chamber’s collective consciousness: What happens to Democrats if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid really does get knocked off in the 2010 midterm elections?
Most of his fellow Democrats believe the Nevadan will pull out a win, avoiding the humiliation of ousted Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota in 2004. But privately, they’re looking ahead with some trepidation, imagining a Reid-less Senate that could be more chaotic and even more partisan that it is today.
“You’ve got people who ask, ‘What does Harry actually do around here?’ I say, ‘Just wait till he’s gone. You’ll see just what he did; how he held things together,’” says a Democratic insider with ties to the leader. “On the surface, it appears that all these guys have friendly relationships. But under the surface, there are people who really don’t like each other in the conference, and Harry keeps a lid on all of that.”
For all the griping about Reid’s reluctance to impose his will on the raucous health care debate, even his critics concede that he runs a no-drama conference and has mostly kept the party’s right and left flanks from open warfare.
The two men who would almost certainly battle to succeed Reid — Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Chuck Schumer of New York — are both more liberal and more forcefully partisan figures who would alter the Senate’s equilibrium in significant and unpredictable ways.
For both, the topic of Reid’s succession is impolitic, tacky and strictly verboten.
“We’re not commenting,” said Schumer spokesman Brian Fallon.
“No, thanks,” said Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker.
One Democratic staffer privy to the private interactions of Reid, Schumer and Durbin described their attitudes this way: “Nobody in the [60-member Democratic Caucus] is talking about life after Harry. ... And the two guys who are thinking about it will keep their heads down: one of them because he’s loyal enough; the other, because he’s smart.”
Schumer, the former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was the key player in securing the Democrats’ 60-vote supermajority. When it comes to voting for a new leader, he “starts with a base of 14 votes” of members he’s helped elect in the past two cycles, says Jennifer Duffy, who covers the Senate for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
“But people really like Durbin, so neither of these guys would be a clear winner,” she added. “This has the potential to be a really close fight.”
To outsiders, the archetypal majority leader is Lyndon B. Johnson, the brilliant, bullying, lapel-clutching colossus who somehow managed to ram the 1957 Civil Rights Bill down the throats of his fellow Southerners.
But there has never been another majority leader like Johnson in the 48 years since he left the chamber — and with good reason.
For senators, the ideal majority leader is more of a majority follower — a hybrid of sounding board, shrink, concierge and wing man. The paradigm was LBJ’s successor, the unprepossessing Mike Mansfield, the Montana Democrat who adopted a mellow, accommodating style that made him popular with a Senate weary of serving as Johnson’s legislative mule train.
“What it takes to be elected leader, it isn’t about the leadership skills to shepherd great legislation through,” said a Democratic consultant who has worked on numerous Senate campaigns in the past two decades. “It’s about who can make the other guys happy. It’s about who knows what vote you can and can’t take, who knows you have a fundraiser at 4 o’clock on Friday and need to get out of town.”
Asked to define his greatest attributes, Reid’s backers often compare him to Mansfield, saying he has a genius for knowing what each member of his conference needs at any given time.
He can be a bitter political gut-puncher back home in Nevada, and he seldom forgets a slight. But a former aide says he frequently tells his staffers: “The most important thing is getting along with people.”
Neither Durbin nor Schumer — roommates in a ratty Capitol Hill town house — is overtly gunning for Reid’s job, even in private, according to sources.
But few Senate insiders doubt they will compete if Reid is unseated. Other dark-horse contenders pop up in discussion — including Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Mark Warner of Virginia and Claire McCaskill of Missouri — but only in the context of a deadlock or an unforeseen stumble by Durbin or Schumer.
On the surface, Durbin would seem to have more Reid-like appeal to his peers, even if he’s regarded as more liberal than Schumer.
Durbin’s fellow senators admired the way he put his ego aside to encourage the ambitions of Barack Obama — nominally his state’s junior senator — and they were impressed by his decision to hand his chairmanship of a key subcommittee post to Arlen Specter after the Pennsylvania senator’s party switch stripped him of seniority.
“Smart move by Dick,” said one Schumer ally. “Chuck would never have thought to do that.”
But Schumer’s triumphant tenure at the DSCC has helped him shed much, if not all, of his old reputation as a publicity-seeking lone wolf.
His staff is widely considered among the best on the Hill, and Reid, who has conferred the “team player” mantle on the New York Democrat, leans heavily on Schumer’s political counsel.
And if there are concerns that Schumer may have his share of Johnsonian tendencies, his forceful personality appeals to those in the Senate eager for someone “to really exert some leadership,” said a top Democratic staffer.
But neither man is really much like Reid, a former prizefighter and Capitol Police officer who suffered through a childhood of hardship in Searchlight, Nev.
Durbin and Schumer may be committed to Reid’s “get along” ethos, but they are very different politicians than Reid, products of larger, more urbanized and vastly more liberal states.
Since Johnson, no Democratic leader has represented a top-10 population state. Electing Durbin or Schumer — either one — would change the balance in a body that has given disproportionate influence to sparsely populated states like Nevada with headcounts smaller than those of Chicago or the five boroughs of New York City.
Moreover, either of Reid’s possible successors would greatly raise the profile of the majority leader’s office, with hard-to-reckon consequences.
Reid can make news with his mouth — he infamously declared the Iraq war lost — but he’s not one to establish a firm ideological direction for his troops or get out in front of his conference.
Durbin, with his signature habit of staring at the C-SPAN camera when delivering a speech on the Senate floor, is one of the most articulate liberals in the chamber, passionately advocating causes — like mortgage modifications for poor homeowners — to the left of other Democrats. And it’s hard to imagine Schumer cutting back on his near-weekly Sunday talk-show appearances.
Perhaps most important, neither Durbin nor Schumer is personally exposed to the day-to-day anxieties of serving as a Democrat in red territory. Unlike Reid, both represent solidly blue states with little concern that they will be unseated by a Republican challenger. Says Duffy: “They can deal with the business of running the conference without looking over their shoulder like Harry does.”