His allies hailed it as a bold statement of conscience with considerable political risk. His critics labeled it a baldly cynical ploy without any lasting downside.
Either way, what Harry Reid did on Wednesday was mostly unexpected — and largely overlooked. It came on a day when the Capitol’s attention was riveted anew by suspicious packages and powder-filled letters sent to lawmakers, the search for the Boston Marathon bomber, the details of a bipartisan immigration overhaul deal, and the climactic series of gun control roll calls in the Senate.
As the day began, the Senate majority leader appeared in the well to announce that he would vote for both of the most ambitious gun control measures being pushed by President Barack Obama: a ban on a long roster of military-style assault rifles, and a prohibition on ammunition clips with more than 10 rounds.
“We must strike a better balance between the right to defend ourselves and the right of every child in America to grow up safe from gun violence,” Reid said. “Maintaining the law and order is more important than satisfying conspiracy theorists who believe in black helicopters and false flags.”
The announcement was remarkable because Reid has courted support from the National Rifle Association throughout his three decades representing wild-west Nevada in Congress and continues to hold a “B” rating from the group, the best grade of anyone in the senior congressional Democratic leadership. He voted against an assault weapons ban in 1993 and, after it became law, voted against renewing it in 2004. And it was his decision, which critics said was a sop to the NRA, to keep the rifle and magazine language out of the bill when it was brought to the floor.
In that context, Reid’s call for “courage” from his colleagues to join him in the turnaround sounded like the words of a convert to declared independence.
But the announcement was also remarkable because, by the time he made it, he could be absolutely certain that his dramatically described change of heart would have no impact on the outcome whatsoever. None of the gun control advocates was holding out hope that either amendment would come close to being adopted, and so they had turned almost all their lobbying effort elsewhere.
In other words, he was promising to vote one way in the morning while knowing his previous point of view would prevail in the afternoon. It’s a twist on the tactic that some lobbyists deride as the “vote one way, pray the other” approach of lawmakers they’re not able to pin down — the sort who would vote to freeze congressional pay in order keep constituent anger at bay, for example, while hoping enough colleagues vote the other way that the COLA gets into their bank account.
From that perspective, that same call for “courage” sounded like lawmaker opportunism at its worst.
Whether Reid was motivated by a sincere change of heart or by a calculated switch in strategy — or, as can be true of the best politicians, some of each — the move will be with him for the rest of his Senate career, which will next be up for renewal three years from November. He’ll be a month shy of turning 77 then and will have been Democratic floor leader for almost 10 years. Unless, of course, there’s an unexpected rebellion in the caucus in the meantime, which would become a worry for Reid only if the younger and more socially liberal Democrats conclude he’s has totally lost touch with the party’s mainstream.
“Sure, why not?” was Reid’s hardly Shermanesque response when he visited the Nevada Legislature a few weeks ago and was asked by reporters if he’ll run for a sixth term. If he does, he’ll have to expect a formidable opponent. GOP recruiters are salivating at the prospect of a challenge by Silver State Gov. Brian Sandoval. But Reid would also start the race knowing the demographics of his fast-growing state are moving his way. Despite Nevada’s lousy economy, Obama last fall carried the state by almost 7 points, the fifth Democratic winner in the last six presidential elections.
In March 2010, when Reid looked like the clear underdog in his last race, the Tea Party Express dispatched a delegation to his home town of Searchlight in hopes of capitalizing on the conservative groundswell. Rather than confront them with rhetoric, Reid picked up his own 12-gauge shotgun and headed to a shooting range in Las Vegas, where he was photographed obliterating two clay pigeons in six shots while the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre looked on.
In the end, the NRA decided not to endorse Reid. The majority leader no doubt remembers that slight — along with all the other factors that influenced his most recent Rorschach test maneuver.