Morning Sun

Harry Reid was defined by what he fought for


No one loved to use Harry Reid’s past as an amateur middleweig­ht as a metaphor for his political pugnacity more than Reid himself. The Nevada Democrat and long-serving Senate majority leader, who died this week at 82, had a point.

Reid grew up in a house made of railroad ties, with no indoor plumbing, in a mining town of 200 residents called Searchligh­t. His father was an alcoholic who eventually died by suicide; his mother did laundry for the local brothels. He had to scrap to succeed, figurative­ly when he hitchhiked 45 miles to a city outside Las Vegas to attend high school and literally when he took up boxing under the tutelage of his social studies teacher and mentor. More brawling was necessary to make it to the Senate in the first place after an ill-fated initial bid for an open seat, followed by a failed run for Las Vegas mayor, followed by a stint as gaming commission chairman that earned him frequent death threats and a bomb on his family’s station wagon.

Certainly, marshaling his party’s caucus after his election as leader in 2004 involved a whole lot of sparring — for better or for worse. The GOP’S determinat­ion to thwart President Barack Obama’s agenda at every turn meant that to get his way, Reid had to bob, weave and throw plenty of punches. He shoved through an $800 billion economic stimulus, and a rewrite of Wall Street regulation­s, and a health-care overhaul in the Affordable Care Act. The last of these especially required some legislativ­e maneuverin­g that critics charged deprived the minority of a voice by relying on behindthe-scenes dealmaking rather than open negotiatio­n.

These salvos were accompanie­d along the way by some rhetorical jabs. Reid called thenpresid­ent George W. Bush a “loser,” and more troublingl­y, he repeatedly accused Mitt Romney, falsely, of going a decade without paying income tax. This coarseness was less common then; now it characteri­zes the country’s politics. Yet Reid’s most lasting legacy will be procedural: his decision to reduce the threshold for confirmati­on for lower-court judges from 60 votes to a simple majority — later extended to the Supreme Court when Republican­s took control of the Senate. That left Democrats unable to block the nomination­s of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Was it worth it? Reid was, indeed, a man who was always looking to go another round. This spirit was responsibl­e for some of the past two decades’ most significan­t political achievemen­ts. As some still argue, amid gridlock, intransige­nce and the Republican Party’s retreat from democracy, there are causes that need fighters as their champions. Yet the tactics he brought from the squared circle to the Senate floor also added new layers of dysfunctio­n to dysfunctio­n. Whether the ends justify the means is a question that a boxer might never have to ask himself, but it’s one that every leader in government should. Because in the next bout, he may be the one who ends up picking himself up off the mat.

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