Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, so when Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced his retirement on Friday morning, it was easy to imagine a competitive, and perhaps even fierce, race to succeed him. After all, these leadership posts become available very infrequently – maybe once a decade – so Reid’s departure, among other things, created a rare opportunity for ambitious Senate Dems.
Of course, Reid recognized all of this, and understood that a divisive leadership fight, possibly splitting the caucus at a difficult time, wouldn’t do Democrats any favors. It’s why Reid made sure the race for the leadership post was over before it started.
Politico had a good piece over the weekend of the “unusually close bond and political alliance” between Reid and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and the conversation the two had on Friday night when the Minority Leader not only told Schumer about his retirement, but also about his endorsement.
The matter was extraordinarily sensitive, especially since Reid made clear he preferred Schumer over Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, who has served as the Nevadan’s No. 2 for the past decade.When the Senate finally concluded voting at 3:30 a.m., Reid called Durbin to share the news with him, but he couldn’t reach the Illinois Democrat. They didn’t personally connect until later Friday morning. But Durbin already sensed something was afoot. Before he spoke with Reid, Durbin told Schumer something that caught his rival off guard: He would support him for leader and would not seek to challenge him.
And with that, the race was over. Schumer is moving up – whether he’s Majority Leader or Minority Leader will be clear in about 20 months – and his election will likely be uncontested.
If my email inbox is any indication, Schumer’s promotion has been met with skepticism from many progressive activists. Critics have a legitimate gripe: the New York Democrat has been cozy with Wall Street for much of his career. Like many other Senate Dems, Schumer also supported the Iraq war in the Bush era, and hasn’t exactly championed the Obama administration’s agenda on stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions through diplomatic means.
But it’s worth pausing to appreciate the unique responsibilities of a Senate party leader.
If this were simply a matter of a caucus picking the member most in line with party orthodoxy – or the most politically popular, or the member with the best communications skills – it would be a very different process. But the job – and this applies to both parties, whether they be in the majority or the minority – is more about keeping a caucus together and satisfying competing intra-party constituencies, not meeting ideological litmus tests.
I was blogging in 2004 when then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) lost his re-election bid, creating a vacancy atop the caucus, and I remember the rumors about then-Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who very nearly defeated Daschle for the post a decade earlier, seeking the post denied to him in 1994.
But Dodd withdrew soon after – members had already begun to rally behind Harry Reid.
At the time, liberal activists were not pleased. Dodd was a blue-state progressive from New England; Reid was red-state moderate with a “B” rating from the National Rifle Association and a record of supporting restrictions on abortion rights. Republicans had just taken control of the White House and both chamber of Congress, and George W. Bush was planning to privatize Social Security. Many on the left assumed Senate Democrats were making a huge mistake throwing their support to the soft-spoken Nevadan.
With the benefit of hindsight, it looks like the choice worked out pretty well for Democrats.
Matt Yglesias made a good point about the disconnect between the leadership post and the party’s policy direction.
Precisely because the new leader will back the caucus’s policy agenda regardless of who the new leader is, policy ideas likely won’t loom large in the fight. Democratic senators want a leader who can do a good job of fundraising, a good job of message coordination, and a good job of representing the caucus’s views in talks with the House and the White House. This is harder for outsiders to evaluate than policy positions, but much more important to actual senators.
If the fear is that Senate Democrats will move away from economic populism under Schumer’s leadership, time will tell, but I’m inclined to think the caucus will change the leadership more than the other way around – Reid moved to the left in large part to reflect the wishes and broader policy agenda endorsed by his members. Schumer already starts off as a pretty solid progressive on most issues and leading the caucus will likely help solidify this posture.
What a party wants in a Senate leader is someone who knows the ins and outs of the chamber’s arcane procedural rules, can help with party fundraising, can articulate the party’s message, and can manage intra-party disagreements. Given this, Schumer seems like a natural choice.
* Postscript: Early Friday, I saw some progressive groups recommended Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as Reid’s successor. The Massachusetts Democrat quickly made clear she wouldn’t pursue the job, and it’s not hard to understand why: she already has her own power base; after two years on the Hill, she lacks expertise in Senate procedures; and Warren clearly has better things to do than butt heads with Mitch McConnell every day while trying to keep Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin happy at the same time.