Politics & Poker: Will Any Democrats Call for Reid to Go?

Posted January 11, 2010 at 6:35pm

The language of sports and politics are nauseatingly similar.

[IMGCAP(1)]It’s no small irony that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) latest foot-in-mouth episode came during advance publicity for a new book about the 2008 presidential campaign called “Game Change.— Because it’s a game change that the Democrats desperately need now after an avalanche of bad political news over the past several weeks.

But it’s hard to see just when the game-changer will come and where it will come from. If Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) hangs on and wins the Bay State’s special Senate election a week from today — no foregone conclusion — Democrats will breathe a sigh of relief, but that hardly qualifies as a game-changer. This was one rare 2010 race that the Democrats weren’t supposed to sweat.

What else is ahead on the political horizon that could be good news for the Democrats? How about final passage of a health care reform bill?

That might qualify. But the process has been so tortured — and will no doubt continue to be — that it’s hard to see how Democrats wring much of a victory from the final product. The Democrats will need to muster all the stagecraft that they can at a bill-signing ceremony to convince the American public that something really important and historic has taken place. That’s an art that they seemed to have mastered until things started going south.

Stagecraft may be all the Democrats have left — since statecraft has not particularly been their forte since they took over all branches of the federal government a year ago.

Of course, if state Sen. Scott Brown (R) upsets Coakley in next week’s Massachusetts special, stagecraft or statecraft won’t matter; health care reform — absent some parliamentary maneuver to delay his seating — will be dead.

Right now, Democrats can’t buy a break (even though they did more or less buy 60 Senate votes for health care reform late last year). Of their three high-profile retirements last week — Sens. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Byron Dorgan (N.D.) and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter — two were arguably good news. The Democrats are much more likely to hold the Connecticut seat with Dodd gone and are clearly in a stronger political position with Ritter on the sidelines. Only in North Dakota are their prospects hampered.

But that’s not how the retirements were spun in the media. Instead, it was something like, “SENIOR OFFICIALS BAILING AS DEMOCRATS’ CONDITION WORSENS!—

Whatever. With Dodd gone, Reid is now, without question, the most vulnerable Democratic Senator up for re-election this year. Can he be saved? Should he be? Will this latest verbal gaffe prompt any calls — or even whispers — from anyone other than Republican partisans, that it’s time for him to go?

Republicans are quite predictably comparing Reid’s private remarks on President Barack Obama to the public statements that then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) made at Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) 100th birthday celebration back in 2002 — which eventually cost Lott his leadership post — and are calling for Reid’s head.

These inside-the-Beltway scandals have a funny way of unfolding. There wasn’t an immediate uproar after Lott, trying to be nice to a very old man, appeared to embrace the segregationist views that Thurmond espoused during his 1948 White House campaign. The lead story in the Dec. 12, 2002, Roll Call — a full week after Thurmond’s birthday party — was headlined “Allies Rally Around Lott— and featured this line: “With Lott’s hold on the Senate’s top job secure …—

Other than a political cartoon, the next edition of Roll Call, on Dec. 16 — ah, those were the days, when we only published twice a week and barely had a presence on the Web — did not mention the scandal at all. Our final paper of the year, on Dec. 19, featured an article about Lott telling supporters that he was “hanging in there.— He stepped down as Majority Leader a day later. Talk about a slow-cooked political fall.

But Lott was never politically imperiled at home in Mississippi the way Reid is now. Yet another dispiriting poll for Reid and the Democrats came out over the weekend, showing him trailing the three leading Republican Senate candidates by an average of 8 points.

A top-flight Democratic operative with years of experience in Nevada told me recently that the polls in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, routinely undercount Democratic performance in the Silver State — by about 8 points, by this operative’s estimation. He went on to say that if Reid is still several points behind in July, then he’ll worry.

But by July, it will be too late. The Nevada primaries are early this year, on June 8, and the filing deadline is March 12. Is there a Democrat out there who can run a stronger race than Reid, the way there was an obvious stronger alternative to Dodd in Connecticut? And if so, is there a Democratic leader — including Obama, who rushed to Reid’s defense over the weekend — with the juice or the cajones to tell him to step aside?

After the Senate passed its version of health care reform on Christmas Eve, Reid was widely praised for his ability to pull off the deal — and he deserved it. But at the same time, these verbal missteps come with depressing regularity. It’s hard not to make the case that either of the men likely to succeed him as Senate Democratic leader, Dick Durbin (Ill.) or Charles Schumer (N.Y.), would be less susceptible to controversy, and thus better equipped to shepherd Obama’s agenda over the next two years (though neither is without flaw). And while Republicans will wave Reid’s scalp around if he steps down as Majority Leader or announces that he won’t seek re-election after all, would removing himself from the scene actually help the Democrats’ cause in the long run?

Which brings us to the GOP’s high-profile leader who is unable to escape controversy, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. Steele seems to match Reid kerfuffle for kerfuffle — only he seems to be finding a lot less loyalty than Reid.

The controversy over Steele’s remarks and tenure is a reminder that the Republican Party, even as the Democrats fumbled the agenda and frittered away of the voters’ goodwill, is having a hard time righting itself. Even as the poll numbers drop for Obama and Congressional Democrats, Republicans can’t truly take advantage and are now looking forward to a series of ideological primary battles that will be bruising at the very least and could produce the same sort of disastrous results that they saw in the upstate New York special House election two months ago.

So we have a situation where the Democrats are the best thing that the Republicans have going for them — and vice versa. Small wonder the voters are so angry.

As for the Democrats, they may not need to hope for a game-changer after all — especially if the Republicans keep dropping the ball.