In his first five months as minority leader, Sen. Harry Reid has come out swinging. The soft-spoken Nevadan has called George Bush a “loser,” Clarence Thomas an “embarrassment” and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan a “political hack.” He has held the Democrats together to oppose Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security. And he stood up to Majority Leader Bill Frist and other radical Republicans who tried to deploy the “nuclear option” to overturn the Senate tradition of judicial filibusters. In the end, the Republicans blinked first, as seven moderates abandoned Frist to cut a deal with the Democrats on May 23rd. The following day, beneath the portrait of Mark Twain that hangs in his office in the Capitol building, Reid sat down to talk with ROLLING STONE.
Is the deal real? Republicans are saying they will still go nuclear if you filibuster.
They’re saying that to cover themselves. The nuclear option is history. Listen: The Republicans who signed that agreement, we should put up a statue to them someplace. That was a brave thing they did.
Why couldn’t you and Frist agree on a deal yourselves to avert a showdown?
He couldn’t do a deal. He’s being driven by these right-wing zealots.
What did you learn about Frist during your negotiations?
I like him, but he hasn’t been in government very long. He’s a doctor, and doctors have a little different outlook on life. Being a senator is about the art of compromise. That’s what the filibuster is all about — it forces compromise. And if anyone feels that compromising is unethical, or immoral, then they should get in some other business — because that’s what we do. What differences do you see in Bush now that he’s in his second term? This first five months of the second term, he and his folks have become even more pushy than they were in the first four years.
Did you learn anything from dealing with the Mob during your days on the Nevada Gaming Commission that helps you in dealing with the Republicans?
[Laughs] It allows you to put things in perspective when there aren’t bombs in your car, when your kids aren’t being taken to school with armed guards, when you don’t have to carry a gun every place you go. Those were some very frightening times in my life. In the Senate, I’m not worried about physical pain — just legislative pain.
What kinds of gains will Democrats make in 2006?
Well, history’s on our side. Presidents who have been in Bush’s situation have lost from one to thirteen senators. We are going to be competitive in races in Pennsylvania, Montana, Ohio, Rhode Island and Missouri.
Why did Kerry lose, and what do Democrats have to learn from that?
Everybody says it was about values, but I don’t buy that. Senator Kerry lost because he ignored rural America. Take Nevada as an example. Ninety-one percent of the registered voters are in Reno and Las Vegas. So you would think that someone who carries those two counties by a nice margin would be the winner. Wrong. Kerry carried those counties — but he got slaughtered in the other nine percent, where the turnout was huge. The rural vote went five-to-one against Kerry, and he lost the state by two percent. Democrats can no longer win elections in big cities. We have to go to places like Elko and Carson City and Ely and let people know who we are. Until we do that, we’re going to continue to lose.
You’ve called Bush a loser.
And a liar.
You apologized for the loser comment. But never for the liar, have I?