Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012 | 11 a.m.
From his Senate perch on the sidelines of the presidential campaign, Majority Leader Harry Reid has acted as the Democrats’ lead attack dog.
Reid’s steady sniping at Republican Mitt Romney has inspired an angry exchange of accusations over everything from their economic plans to their undisclosed tax returns to whose politics are more exemplary of their shared Mormon faith.
It would be priceless political theater for Democrats, if not for one gnawing caveat: These two might someday have to work together.
At this point, the idea that Reid and Romney would find themselves thrown together in Washington next year is hypothetical.
But at this point in the campaign, it’s a possibility that looks more likely than it did at the outset. At the start of this election season, Democrats were much more concerned about losing the Senate majority than they were about losing the White House. Now, odds are that the Senate will remain in Democratic hands, but when it comes to the White House -- they’re really not so sure.
Narrowing presidential polls that have effectively erased Obama’s lead in several swing states -- including Nevada -- will doubtless be an incentive for Reid to step up his attacks on Romney, especially in the few days that remain before early voting opens on October 20.
But what happens if things don’t go Obama’s way come Election Day? How functional would a Reid-Romney relationship-- forged so far only by campaign combat-- really be?
“If they met, at most, they only met each other once,” recalled Jim Manley, a longtime top aide to Reid who confirmed that the senator can’t stand Romney, but couldn’t explain why. “It’s a little puzzling, no doubt about it. But it’s not based on any personal relationship.”
Ask Reid’s friends in and around Capitol Hill what he says about Romney behind closed doors and you will get a range of responses, from the intentionally dry “uh, he doesn’t like him” to a low roll of snickering giggles and a “yeah -- I’m not going to tell you that.”
But his colleagues also point out that both Reid and Romney are professional dealmakers.
“Both of their demeanor is that they’re tough campaigners, but at the end of the day they understand the practical need to do these jobs,” said Sig Rogich, who is supporting Romney’s candidacy, but also led the Republicans for Reid movement that supported the senator’s bid against Sharron Angle in 2010. “I don’t think that anyone would view them as the ideal pair -- they’re from different parties, they govern from different perspectives, and they have ideologies that are not in sync. But they are also pragmatic.”
“[Reid] is good at threading the needle,” Manley said. “He absolutely respects the president and respects the idea that if a president asked him to do something, he’s going to do it. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to pull his punches when challenging policies that he disagrees with.
“If Romney comes right at the key Democratic priorities like (former president) George Bush tried to do with Social Security, he’s going to go nowhere fast,” Manley continued. “It’s all going to be driven by the initial relationship...that’s going to dominate weeks if not months of their relationship, and probably define it.”
In many ways, however, the square-off on the issues started long before Election Day.
The 2012 election may be a referendum on Obama’s presidency, but that presidency was almost completely defined by policies Reid helped steer through the Congress.
Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, have homed the brunt of their anti-Obama campaign message on Reid’s largest legislative victories, promising to repeal the health care reform law known as Obamacare and the financial services reform law known as Dodd-Frank. They also have attacked the stimulus bill passed by Democrats at the start of Obama’s term.
“Mitt Romney has gone out there and threatened to repeal everything, he has attacked almost every policy that the senator’s been involved with,” said Billy Vassiliadis, a Las Vegas-based lobbyist who has worked closely with Reid for years. “If his agenda as president is to destroy the last four years, Reid’s not going to accept that agenda. If Romney comes out with something that looks forward -- Reid is practical and realistic and he’ll do what he’s gotta do.”
No political insider interviewed for this story presumed to have a cure-all recipe for a Reid-Romney relationship. But a noticeable partisan split emerged when we asked how the men would have to approach each other: Republicans believed that Romney and Reid would make a simultaneous move to engage each other, while Democrats believed it would be incumbent on Romney to pick up the phone.
“The president sets the agenda,” Vassiliadis pointed out.
“Let’s remember that [Reid] famously stated at the beginning of the Obama administration that he did not work for President Obama, he worked with President Obama,” Manley said. “So I think it would be incumbent on a president Romney to make the first move.”
That’s a potentially tall order for a politician who has logged almost no time in Washington. But Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has some experience dealing with the dynamics of an unfriendly legislature.
“Governor Romney has a history of working with Democrats --- not always agreeing with them, but having legit policy differences and discussions,” pointed out Ryan Erwin, Romney’s top Nevada strategist. “I suspect that you will find Mitt Romney will deal with everyone in Washington with respect...I just don’t think it will be a significant challenge.”
But this is also new turf for Reid, who despite all his years leading his caucus in the Senate, has never been the only Democrat left standing in Washington. When he’s been in the majority, there has been either a president in the White House or a Speaker in the House with him. Even when he’s been leading the minority, the Democrats in the House were in the same boat.
That puts him in a position of blocker -- a role that he’s spent the past two years criticizing House Republicans for exercising.
“I don’t think Harry Reid is going to set out to spend four years blocking someone’s legislation unless it’s something that cuts to the core principles of what the Democrats believe in,” Vassiliadis said. “Romney’s biggest challenge in this fantasy scenario is going to be holding the Republicans. Reid may be easier to deal with than his own side.”
While Senate Democrats are not an entirely cohesive bloc, Republicans have proven to be a far more factionally disorganized group. On major pieces of compromise legislation -- whether it was budgets, the debt ceiling bill, or a tax cut compromise-- Reid pulled more of his caucus along for the ride than any other leader in Congress.
But if it comes to a Romney presidency, Reid’s task won’t be to convince his caucus to promote the president’s agenda-- instead, he will need them to keep a last line of defense against the programs Romney wants to repeal.
Democratic insiders were fairly certain that Reid, even if offered enticing trade-offs, would not be open to dealmaking that might pare back the healthcare or financial reform bills. And they were equally adamant that Reid would not agree to back off his insistence that tax increases be part of a package to avoid the fiscal cliff, at any price.
More likely, both Republicans and Democrats surmised, Reid’s horse-trading instincts would surface in policy areas that were under-addressed in the last Congress, such as a comprehensive energy bill, or on education.
“I personally worked with Harry Reid when I was in the White House on two big issues: Land and water disputes that had been in the courts for years,” Rogich recalled of his time in the Bush administration, surmising that Reid might do better with a Republican administration when it came to making compelling deals.
Democrats did not agree.
“Reid’s comfortable in his own skin. He knows exactly who he is and where he wants to go,” Manley said. “That’s probably where a little bit of this tension comes from: He looks at Romney and he sees a guy who lacks any core convictions...that’s just not the way Reid operates, and he’s not a big fan of those who operate that way.”
Simply by virtue of their partisan differences, a Reid-Romney relationship wouldn’t be as productive the relationship between Reid and Obama. Democrats describe that relationship as rooted in a filial admiration.
“Reid has a personal affinity for this president that I have not seen him have for many people,” Vassiliadis said. “I’ve never seen him have that kind of affection for another politician. It’s almost paternalistic.”
If Reid were forced to switch gears, he would mourn the loss of that partnership, Vassiliadis added. “But he doesn’t mourn long,” he said.
Republicans, meanwhile, disparage the idea that a lovefest between the Senate’s leader and the president is a necessary element of effective governing.
“They’re clearly not best pals. And they clearly have a pretty different view of how government should operate,” Erwin said. “But that doesn’t mean they both don’t care about the future of America.”