(Jon Ralston/Special to Politico) – I have been bemused the past few days observing the various Beltway Reidologists examine the motivations behind the Senate majority leader’s decision to send a public option to the floor.
The leitmotif has been that Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) cares more about his reelection than Capitol Hill success on health care reform and that he caved to pressure from progressives on the public option. The former is silly because one is inextricably linked to the other, and the latter is simply wrong.
Reid is in big trouble back home; some polls show his approval rating lower than 50 percent . But his problem is not with liberals, who are almost a nonexistent force in Nevada politics (no Ned Lamonts here), but with independents, who make up almost 16 percent of the electorate and may be closer to 20 percent a year from now. The truth is that the only way for Reid to get reelected is by proving to Nevadans that he is indispensable to our small state, that his clout is so prodigious that voters can’t afford to oust him — and if he fails to craft a deal on health care, that could undermine that foundation of his campaign.
The closest anyone came to nailing Reid was his colleague, West Virginia Sen. John Rockefeller, who marveled to Roll Call about Reid’s balancing of his majority leader duties (including maintaining a solid Democratic edge after 2010) and his reelection imperative: “I’ve never seen anybody quite like that — be so oblivious.”
Reid does behave as if he is oblivious to the atmospherics most politicians consider before acting — polling, public perception, media reaction. But he is not so much oblivious as dismissive, which helps to explain both his success and his vulnerability. The majority leader’s difficulties back home are the product of years of being more interested in the inside-Washington game — the art of the deal — and his natural disinclination to consider the political impact as he cobbles together the necessary votes to pass legislation. That has resulted in a chronic disease — Reid Fatigue — which afflicts much of the Nevada electorate, and its potential pandemic status is the greatest threat to hiswinning a fifth term.
But Reid’s survival instincts and his indomitability in the face of overwhelming odds have characterized his career. Reid has had so many near-death political experiences in his four decades of public life — in the mid-’70s he lost in successive years for the U.S. Senate and mayor, and he won reelection in 1998 by only 428 votes — that he always thinks he will survive, almost willing himself to victory, always believing he will find a way.
So, too, with health care reform, where he is singularly focused on putting together votes without regard to the politics of the moment. Yes, he surely knows that a Research 2000 poll conducted a couple of weeks ago for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee showed not only that 84 percent of Democrats support a public option but also that, much more important for his reelection, 55 percent of independents do (with 39 percent against).
I am convinced, though, that that is not what is driving him. Has anyone stopped to ask this question: How do you think a guy who seems to have had any charisma drained from his body, who regularly seems afflicted by some kind of rhetorical Tourette’s syndrome and who often has trouble expressing himself with clarity and cogency has ascended to the apex of congressional power? How? He knows what his colleagues want, and he knows how to put together compromises. It’s what he does.
That’s not to say Reid, the consummate process player, believes in nothing. He has long supported a public option, but his clumsy, often contradictory statements have confused some and worried others.
But Reid is not one to ever be fretful. He surely knows what we often forget in the 24/7 world of political coverage — that with 369 days left until he faces voters, the electorate may well — mostly likely will — be preoccupied with some other topic by then, probably the economy. And Reid also is equally likely, with his loose, unzippable lips, to cause more problems for himself with what he says than with what he does before November 2010.
Reid realizes that he is such a polarizing figure in Nevada that he is fighting for a sliver of the electorate next year. That’s why he has been so focused on organization, voter registration and campaign team building so he can, as one of his intimates told POLITICO, vaporize his opponent. He needs to show voters, mostly independents, that Nevada may not be thrilled to live with him but the state can’t live without him.
With Republicans here threatening cannibalism in a crowded primary, Reid is much more focused on watching the GOP knife fight about to begin than on whether he can hold onto that rarest of Nevada political species: liberals.
Jon Ralston hosts the daily news interview program “Face to Face With Jon Ralston,” writes a column for the Las Vegas Sun and produces a daily e-mail newsletter.