PHILADELPHIA - Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid used his valedictory moments before the Democratic convention to unspool some of the most withering rhetoric so far this week — reserving his most vituperative putdowns Wednesday night not for Donald Trump but for congressional Republicans.
His sharpest words by far were directed directly at his longstanding rival for Senate supremacy, the GOP floor leader.
“I have never seen anything more craven than Mitch McConnell and what he has done to our democracy,” declared Reid. “His Republican Party decided that the answer to hard-working Americans’ dreams is to slander our African-American president, stoke fear of Muslims, sow hatred of Latinos, insult Asians and, of course, wage war against women. In other words the only thing Republicans like Mitch McConnell have accomplished is setting the stage for a hateful con man, Donald Trump.”
The relationship between the two has been increasingly bitter in public and ice cold in private during this Congress. Reid has positioned himself to go out on a partisan high note this campaign season before retiring from his Nevada seat after 30 years, while the Kentuckian is doing what he can at the Capitol to preserve his primacy as majority leader for another two years no matter who wins the presidency.
One Senate leader taking on the other so combatively, and on national television, is nonetheless another extraordinary reflection of just how polarized and partisan Congress has become.
At a minimum, Reid’s speech can only worsen the prospects for collaboration when the Senate returns after Labor Day for its final five weeks of work before the election — and, more importantly, during the lame duck session into which so much of the legislative must-do list has already been postponed.
Reid appeared visibly liberated, if not unleashed, as he and his wife, Landra, took the podium together in matching reflective sunglasses — a self-mocking reference to the freakish accident in his Las Vegas home last year that blinded his right eye and effectively ended his plan to seek a sixth term at age 76.
After singling out McConnell as most blameworthy for Trump’s rise, even though the Republican has been tepid at best in his embrace of his party’s nominee, Reid returned to one of his current favorite lines of attack: lashing everyone in GOP’s ever-more-conservative congressional establishment for pursuing strategies and policies that incubated this year’s angry political environment, then standing aside when Trump started to thrive.
“Parents, you're right to worry about your children hearing what comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth. Republicans, you should have been careful also because Donald learned it from watching you,” Reid said.
“They say they believe in the country first. What a joke. Republicans who won't stand up to Trump believe in one thing and one thing only: Party first. And this year, 2016, they've gone even further, nominating the poster child of me first. Trump knew that hateful rhetoric and dangerous policies are the way to win in today's GOP, but that's not how you win in America and that’s not how America wins in the world.”
The hyper-feisty tone was all the more noteworthy because Reid took the stage after a three-minute tribute video featuring endearing anecdotes from many of Reid’s Democratic legislative collaborators during his decade as floor leader. House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, for example, chuckled at Reid’s notorious practice of ending phone conversations without saying goodbye.
“Millions of people are better off for the work we did,” President Barack Obama says. “Harry, we’ve had a good run. You and I, we’ve fought the good fight and we did it together.”
In the film, Reid said personal experience fueled his drive to enact the 2010 health care reform. His family’s lack of money when he was young, he said, prevented them from visiting a doctor even when a brother broke his leg and his mother lost her almost all her teeth.
“The one thing I did that I’m always proud of — the first time I got money, I worked all one summer in a service station — I bought my mother some teeth,” he said, his voice cracking. “If I do nothing else in my life, I got my mother some teeth.”