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The Whipping Boy

What Harry Reid's detractors get wrong.

WASHINGTON--Punditry in the nation's capital has its own rhythms, and one common practice involves almost everyone beating up on the same politician at the same time.

Such assaults are rarely about ideology, though I have found that liberals or Democrats are often the object of these sustained attacks, perhaps because journalists are overly sensitive to charges of liberal bias. There's nothing like hitting a Democrat hard to "prove" impartiality.

For quite a while, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was the target of choice. She was cast as a "San Francisco liberal" out of touch with the "real America." Everything about her, from her speaking style (fluid in small groups, stilted with larger crowds) to her taste in clothes (female politicians always face this), became the object of analysis and disparagement.

But the beauty of journalism is that reality eventually has to intrude on analysis. It has become quite clear that Pelosi is far less a "San Francisco liberal" than a "Tommy D'Alesandro Democrat." That would be a reference to her dad, the former mayor of Baltimore, a highly practical local politician more concerned with delivering the goods than with passing ideological litmus tests.

Pelosi turns out to be adept doing whatever needs to be done to produce House majorities for Democratic goals. She is a liberal, of course, but she is the House speaker first. Her standing has now risen to the point that Time magazine had her listed as a runner-up for Person of the Year. 

With Pelosi off the hook, the Washington press corps needed a new goat, and along came Harry Reid. The Senate majority leader, it should be said, sometimes makes it easy for his critics. He can be irascible, and has no qualms about yelling at journalists. (It's happened to me.) He is not always careful with words. Earlier this month, he at least implied that Republicans were slow on the slavery issue, an odd charge since opposition to slavery was the passion that animated the founding of the GOP. (In those days, most Democrats were, as we might put it now, bad on the slavery issue.)

And, yes, Reid criticized my friend David Broder. It's true that Reid was hitting back, since David is not wild about Harry. Nonetheless, I dearly love Broder, as does everyone who has ever worked with him.

Still, there is a rote quality to the attacks on Reid that flies in the face of what he's actually accomplished. The simple truth is that Reid did what much of wise Washington thought was impossible: He united the entire Democratic caucus, from Joe Lieberman to Bernie Sanders, to support a health care bill that is the most far-reaching piece of social legislation since the 1960s.

He confronts an unprecedented form of Republican obstruction--yes, it's really unprecedented, you can look it up. Even Olympia Snowe, that most moderate of Republicans, refused to negotiate unless Reid postponed action on the bill, a delay that would very likely have led to its death.

You bet he made deals, including the now highly controversial buy-out of Nebraska's extra Medicaid costs to win the 60th vote for the bill from Senator Ben Nelson.

You should notice this about political analysis: When a writer admires a wheeler-dealer, he or she inevitably compares that politician to Lyndon B. Johnson and typically asks: Why can't others be more like LBJ? When a writer wants to condemn exactly the same sort of horse-trading, LBJ recedes and some other metaphor--the popular one now is "Chicago-style politics"--is wielded to imply highly unprincipled behavior. With just a few keystrokes, shrewd pragmatism is transformed into terribly sinful activity.

Lord knows, I don't blame Republicans in the least for being mad at Harry Reid. He beat them at their own game. In our great republic, Republicans are free to call him any name they wish between now and the next election--and they will.

Those who aspire to be nonpartisan, however, need to pause in their excoriations of Reid long enough to note that he pulled off something very big. Senator Tom Harkin may have been a little over the top when he praised Reid last week for "the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon and the endurance of Samson." But for now, at least, credit him with the toughness of LBJ, the listening skills of Tip O'Neill, and the canniness of Sam Rayburn. He deserves that much. 

E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.

(c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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