Harry Reid pulls no punches with his political predictions

Since he retired from the Senate four years ago, Harry Reid has watched with dismay as the chamber he inhabited for three decades has deteriorated into what he regards as a cauldron of incivility.

The 80-year-old Nevada-born Democrat, who ended his run in 2017 as his party’s leader in the Senate— and served for eight years, from 2007 to 2015, as Senate majority leader — blames the Republican Party. 

“I don’t think it was bad when I left,” he told Jewish Insider in a recent phone interview from his home in Las Vegas, where he now lives with his wife, Landra Gould. “What has happened is Republican senators have been dismal failures, as far as I’m concerned, because they’re lap dogs for [President Donald] Trump.”

Still, Reid sees an upside to this dynamic as November 3 comes into view. “It’s going to be a change election,” he predicted, charging that the GOP has badly damaged its reputation in cozying up to the president, whose popularity has waned as he goes up against Democratic nominee Joe Biden. “I think Trump’s going to be beaten.”

The former senator, who has kept a close eye on the national political scene notwithstanding his absence from Washington, envisions a Democratic sweep in which the party maintains control of the House and picks up a majority in the Senate. 

“You’re going to see many down-ballot races decided in favor of Democrats,” Reid said, “just because people don’t like Trump.”

He believes that Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) will fall in Colorado, as will Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) in North Carolina, Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) in Montana and Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) in Arizona. He is optimistic, too, that Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) will lose his seat in Georgia and that Dan Sullivan (R-AK) will be vanquished in Alaska.

As for Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is currently engaged in a fight for his political life as Jaime Harrison, his Democratic challenger, outraises him at every turn? 

“I hope he loses,” Reid said. 

The outspoken Democrat and former amateur pugilist who is a member of the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame has never been one to pull his punches. “People always know where I stood,” Reid said, “and where I stand.”

And in conversation with JI, Reid was in a spirited mood, despite the occasional cough, as he discussed the upcoming election. In 2015, Reid suffered an exercise accident that left him blind in his right eye, followed three years later by a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. 

He says that he is now cancer-free, but according to a spokesperson, Reid is still undergoing chemotherapy treatment to keep the disease at bay. Nevertheless, he is staying busy. “I’m doing fine,” said Reid, who now co-chairs a public policy institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with former House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).

Reid’s partnership with Boehner underscores his conviction that Democrats should reach across the aisle, along with his faith in a “strong, two-party system.” To this day, he maintains ties with his former colleague, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), as well as the billionaire GOP donor Sheldon Adelson.

“I’ve known him so long, I knew him when he was a Democrat,” Reid said of Adelson, who is one of Trump’s most deep-pocketed backers. “I understand his politics have changed. I accept that. We have an agreement where he respects what I do, and I respect what he does. I don’t get involved in his politics, and I appreciate him staying out of mine. So I still keep in touch with him.”

But the senator is less forgiving of those who currently represent the GOP in D.C., even as some Republicans have sought to distance themselves from the president. 

“Mitch McConnell’s had his arm wrapped around Trump pretty tightly for many years now,” Reid said of the Kentucky senator. The Senate majority leader recently said that he had not visited the White House since August 6 in an apparent effort to separate himself from the president’s haphazard approach to the coronavirus pandemic. 

For Reid, such statements are insufficient. “We’re less than three weeks before the election,” he said of McConnell, “and he can’t unwrap his arm.”

Either way, Reid added his belief that the Republican Party could rebuild itself after the election, noting that such groups as the Lincoln Project — the political action committee made up of former Republican strategists who oppose the president — have given him hope for the future of the party post-Trump. 

“Republicans are going to get rid of him,” he said, “and reestablish the brand.”

Reid believes his own party, on the other hand, is in good shape. Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has done a “remarkably good job,” and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will make a fine majority leader if the Democrats take control of the upper chamber, according to Reid. 

“He’s done a wonderful job leading the Democrats since I left,” Reid said of his successor in the Senate. “I have nothing but good things to say about Chuck Schumer. He’s a unique individual. People don’t realize how smart he is. He got a perfect score on his SAT, perfect score on his LSAT exam. He’s extremely smart. He knows the Senate. I think he’ll do just fine.”

The senator said that he had no advice to impart to Schumer. “He doesn’t need my words of wisdom,” Reid said. “I taught him everything I know.”

As for Biden, Reid said that he will make a good president who may even be able to instill a sense of normalcy in the legislative branch. “That’s not going to happen overnight,” he said, while suggesting that Biden is a “peacemaker” who could help bring about a shared sense of cooperation between the two parties if he is elected. “I think that it could turn out to be like the old Senate.”

He declined to reveal his views on court packing as pundits and politicians alike have speculated whether a Biden administration would seek to expand the Supreme Court bench in response to the Republican effort to rush the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett before the November election.

“This is something that should not be done lightly,” he said. “I think it’s a terribly important decision to make. Certainly, everyone knows it can be done with a simple majority vote in the Senate and the House. But I think I think we should wait and see how the elections turn out.”

A staunch supporter of Israel, Reid is unworried by some progressive Democrats in Congress who have expressed views that are critical of the Jewish state. “That’s just a very small group,” he said. “That’s not the Democratic Party in any way.”

“Democrats have always stood up for Israel,” he added, “and they’ll continue to do so in the future.”

Reid, who is Mormon, said he had no special insight into the views of religious voters, remarking that he has always tried to separate his religious views from his political convictions. “I try not to wear religion on my sleeve,” he said. 

He provided one insight, however, when asked about his views on the similarities and differences between Mormon and Jewish voters. “I think that there are more Democrats who are Jewish than Republicans,” he said, “and there are more Republicans who are Mormons than Democrats.”

Reid is concerned about the rise of antisemitism, citing recent incidents in which swastikas were painted on a stairwell at the University of Nevada, Reno. 

“White supremacists have risen their ugly heads,” he said. “I think antisemitism is a real issue that we need to understand. It’s alive and well.” 

Reid was instrumental in launching an effort that culminated in Trump’s recent executive order on antisemitism, which penalizes colleges and universities for ignoring antisemitic behavior.

Though Reid demurred when asked if he thought Biden would enforce the order, he said that the presidential nominee was in a good position to address antisemitism. “He’s well-equipped to understand and handle the antisemitism that has risen its ugly head,” Reid told JI.

Despite his antipathy toward the president, Reid did reserve one bit of praise for Trump, giving a nod to his role in brokering peace deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. “I think it’s one of the highlights of the Trump administration,” Reid said, characterizing the effort as “commendable.”

Not that he thinks such diplomacy has indemnified the president from what Reid regards as an otherwise abysmal run in public office — one he believes will soon come to an end. 

“Instead of giving him a D-,” Reid said, “I guess we’ll give him a D+.”

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By Jacob Kornbluh & JI Staff

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