Harry Reid is the majority bumpkin of the U.S. Senate, vying with the vice president to say weird, goofy, sometimes amusing and often embarrassing things. His Democratic colleagues typically chuckle, roll their eyes, and put it down to ol’ Harry just being old Harry. (He’s only 78, but in his case, 78 is the new 90.) Long-suffering aides shrug at his bellicose ad-libs and call it “just Harry getting out ahead of his skis.”
Nevertheless, when he stands up on the Senate floor, his colleagues hold their breath. No one can predict what’s going to come out of the motorized mouth. Like Joe Biden, he’s always good for a laugh. He once joked that with the arrival of summer and its high temperatures and high humidity, “you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol.” He welcomed Barack Obama to the presidential race in 2008 because he was “light-skinned” and spoke with “no Negro dialect.” He once applauded a better-than-expected jobs report with the remark that “only 36,000 people lost their jobs today, which is really good.” When a reporter asked him how the death of Ted Kennedy would affect health care reform, he replied, “Oh, I think it’s going to help us.” He is nevertheless a fortunate bumpkin, because he has aides to decide when apologies are necessary. It’s a job that keeps two aides employed full time.
But with the November elections now less than four months away, Democrats are no longer laughing. They’re feeling vulnerable, and headed toward the cliff looming over the Valley of Oblivion, a canyon of death with no bottom. Some of them are asking why Harry is spending so much of his time and ammunition on two imagined villains largely unknown to the public and who are not on anybody’s ballot.
Mr. Reid has become addicted to shooting spitballs at Charles and David Koch, two “ultra-billionaire” brothers who contribute to Republican and other conservative candidates and causes. This year alone, Mr. Reid has made nearly two-dozen speeches about the Koch brothers on the floor of the Senate, not all of them coherent. He has made unflattering mention of them in other speeches 250 times, by the accounting of Politico, the Capitol Hill political daily. He calls the brothers “power-drunk billionaires,” which is apparently worse than power-drunk multimillionaires who finance Democratic candidates. George Soros and various Silicon Valley, Park Avenue and Wall Street billionaires, contributors to Democratic candidates and causes, do not count as “power-drunk.”
The Koch brothers so frighten Mr. Reid that he wants to amend the Constitution, trashing 238 years of uncompromising precedents, to silence the opposition. He’s determined to reduce campaign spending (unless it’s campaign spending for himself and his friends), perhaps with an amendment such as one by Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, a Democratic colleague, to give Congress a power the Founding Fathers could not imagine, the power to regulate political speech. Forty-five Senate Democrats have signed up as co-sponsors.
Mr. Reid calls this the regulation of “dark money,” and he tells Politico that “it’s a fundamental problem that requires a dramatic solution, and that is why I will keep pushing for a constitutional amendment to get this dark money out of our political system.” Once done, the money can be bleached, whitened and camouflaged to make it harmless for politicians of Mr. Reid’s ilk. The leader from Las Vegas, after all, absorbed his ethical tone from croupiers and casino owners. He imagines that he’s a politician with a virgin’s conscience, not easy after decades of struggling with wistful desire.
Mr. Reid does not hide his pleasure in vilification as political strategy, and took particular glee in applying dark rumor and sordid innuendo to paint Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat in 2012. He hasn’t had similar success in painting the Koch brothers, who are richer than Mr. Romney, as knaves and blackguards.
But he keeps trying. The pollsters on the left say the fun is just beginning, and they have high hopes for the politics of personal destruction. They’re encouraged that name recognition of the brothers is rising, and that Mr. Reid has driven their negatives into the high 30s and moving toward the 40s, where Barack Obama is stalled. If they can make “Koch” a dirty word, then Mr. Reid can apply Joe McCarthy’s guilt-by-association to Republican congressional candidates.
Even if it doesn’t work, he’ll have fun trying. “After the 14th statement adverse to me issued by a spokesman for the Koch brothers,” he said not long ago, “it seems abundantly clear I have gotten under their skin.” After two-dozen speeches in the Senate and calling them out 250 times in other places, it’s certainly abundantly clear that the brothers have gotten under the bumpkin’s skin.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.