Wednesday, April 24, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Harry Reid and John Boehner hardly seemed like the best of friends during their time as congressional leaders, and at times it appeared they weren’t even the best of enemies.
That was particularly the case on a day in late December 2012 when Boehner, then the House speaker, spotted Reid outside the Oval Office. Reid, the Senate majority leader, had recently accused Boehner of caring more about retaining his leadership position than cutting a deal with the Senate Democrats to keep the government from going over the fiscal cliff, saying the speaker was running a “dictatorship.”
Boehner didn’t like it one bit. In front of several people, he told Reid twice during that brief moment to “go (expletive) yourself.”
So as they sat on a stage together Tuesday in Las Vegas and both dismissed the notion that Washington had been broken beyond repair by partisan tribalism, their comments carried some weight. Their unspoken message: If they could work together — and they did — there’s no reason their contemporaries couldn’t do the same.
“I think it’s an excuse,” Reid said. “We know there’s a lot of problems in Washington, but I do not accept the fact that things are too much in turmoil that we can’t get things done.”
Boehner agreed, saying “leaders are elected to lead, and they have to lead” — meaning working with the other side. Boehner then cited personal experience in showing that partisan walls could be broken down.
“A lot of my colleagues when I was speaker didn’t want me to work with Barack Obama, and didn’t want me to work with Harry Reid,” he said. “They thought Harry was the devil. I knew better.”
Of course, that was before President Donald Trump, in the opinion of many Americans, became the divider in chief. And Reid and Boehner aren’t the first political rivals to team up and sound the call for bipartisanship — after getting out of the trenches themselves.
But for anyone fearing that the country is hopelessly divided, the event that brought Reid and Boehner together — the MGM Resorts Public Policy Institute’s first symposium — offered some relief that big problems can still be solved.
The two former lawmakers came together in 2017 to co-chair the institute, which was created in partnership between MGM and UNLV to develop policies to help the workforce adapt to evolving technology.
During the four-hour symposium, staged at the Bellagio with “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd as master of ceremonies, speakers and panel members focused largely on the importance of education in empowering workers and providing skilled applicants for employers.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, for instance, discussed the role that improvements in the city’s public schools played in reducing poverty by 21 percent during his time in office. Emanuel, who served as Obama’s chief of staff, spearheaded such reforms as the adoption of universal pre-K programs and full-day kindergarten, as well as a program to provide free tuition, books and transportation to community colleges for high school graduates with a B average. Another key step, he said, was engaging private employers to develop higher education curriculum, particularly for community colleges and vocational institutions.
“We live in a time when you’ll earn what you learn,” Emanuel said, noting that Chicago’s high school graduation rate has improved from 56 percent to a projected 89.3 percent this year.
Throughout the symposium, which is being planned as an annual event, there were calls for a constructive, bipartisan approach to problem-solving. MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren held up former Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, who was in attendance, as a model for working across party lines. Sandoval diverted from GOP policy on several issues as governor, including immigration, health care and taxes.
“Gov. Sandoval got stuff done,” Murren said. “We just have to get away from this bureaucracy and say, ‘Do our kids deserve this? Do our employees deserve better?’ And if that’s true, then what the hell are we waiting for?”
Reid and Boehner said that in addition to education, crucial issues for congressional lawmakers included rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and addressing the growing deficit. Reid said the deficit was “going to bury us” and was fast becoming “something the leaders in Congress can’t ignore.”
In that vein, Reid sounded a warning when asked by Todd whether Trump should be impeached.
“If impeachment proceedings should begin … the country will spend an inordinate amount of time on impeachment and nothing else,” he said. “And I don’t think we can afford that.”
Whether the messages from Tuesday will have any influence in Washington is anybody’s guess. But for those who’ve grown dispirited about the incivility and political division in the U.S., the video from the event is well worth visiting. It’s expected to be posted soon at the institute’s website, unlv.edu/mgmppi.
First, the symposium offered a reminder that despite whatever might be happening on the surface in Washington at any given moment, things might be better behind the scenes. That was certainly the case with Boehner and Reid, who developed a respect for each other despite their public spats. Reid even later said he liked it that Boehner told him off outside the Oval Office, because it was an example of Boehner’s honest and direct approach with him.
But more than that, it was a morning in which Americans from several different points on the political spectrum came together for a respectful dialogue that focused on solutions, not differences.