How Harry Reid Became An Unlikely Progressive Champion

Despite a centrist background, the late Senate Democratic leader’s penchant for partisan combat endeared him to the left.

Harry Reid, who died Tuesday at age 82, was not an especially well-known senator when then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) lost his seat in 2004. Daschle’s defeat propelled Reid to the party’s top role in the Senate overnight.

To the extent that Reid had a national reputation at the time, it was as a relatively socially conservative western Democrat. Media coverage of his ascent tended to focus on the fact that he hailed from the then-red state of Nevada, supported some restrictions on abortion rights, and opposed most gun control measures.

A headline from the Austin American-Statesman was typical: “Senate’s new minority leader breaking mold; Former boxer, Capitol Hill cop is no stereotypical liberal Democrat.”

It came as something of a pleasant surprise, then, for the Democratic Party’s progressive wing — known in the 2000s as the “netroots” or “online left” — when Reid became one of their foremost champions on Capitol Hill.

Reid was one of the earliest and most prominent Democratic lawmakers to view progressives as a key element of the Democratic coalition and cultivate a relationship with them. He identified with the left’s combative instincts, if not with every specific policy or candidate.

“Progressives gravitated to him because he knew how to lead.”

- Rebecca Katz, former Reid communications director

And his office became a storied training ground for staff who would later populate the most important progressive campaigns and offices. Alumni of Reid’s Senate office include Faiz Shakir, who managed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential race; Ari Rabin-Havt, Sanders’ deputy campaign manager in 2020; Josh Orton, a top aide on the Sanders campaign; Kristen Orthman, a senior aide to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and a staffer on her presidential campaign; progressive activist and writer Adam Jentleson; Rebecca Katz, who advises insurgent progressive candidates; Mari Urbina, managing director of Indivisible; and progressive strategist Murshed Zaheed.

“Progressives gravitated to him because he knew how to lead,” said Katz, who was Reid’s communications director from 2005 to 2006. “He didn’t back down from a fight. He understood the Senate better than anybody. And he knew what was possible if you tried.”

As a young alumnus of John Kerry’s failed 2004 presidential campaign, Rabin-Havt came to Reid’s office looking to fight then-President George W. Bush. An opponent of the Iraq War with ties to what was then known as the progressive blogosphere, Rabin-Havt was initially skeptical of working for Reid, who he worried was too moderate.

Reid, a former amateur boxer, sold him on the prospect personally during the job interview. “If you want to fight George Bush, so do I. This is the place to do it,” Rabin-Havt recalled Reid telling him.

Notwithstanding Reid’s occasionally conservative stance on issues like abortion rights — which he would later jettison — his commitment to the Democratic Party’s economic policies was forged in a childhood of extreme poverty in rural Searchlight, Nevada.

Reid’s father was a miner who suffered from alcoholism and died by suicide when Reid was a young adult. Reid nonetheless believed that the little material comfort his father had in his lifetime was thanks to his decision to join a labor union. And Reid, a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told The New Yorker in 2010 that Social Security was “the greatest social program since the fishes and loaves.”

As a result, the extreme conservative domestic agenda of Bush’s second term was tailor-made to unleash Reid’s inner prizefighter.

Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, right, looks nonplussed seated next to then-President George W. Bush during discussions about the economy in January 2008. Also in attendance were then-House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), left, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), second from left.
Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, right, looks nonplussed seated next to then-President George W. Bush during discussions about the economy in January 2008. Also in attendance were then-House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), left, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), second from left.
via Associated Press

Reid’s response to Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security in 2005 would become an early indicator of Reid’s approach to governing. Reid, who later dubbed Bush a “loser,” corralled Senate Democrats behind an agenda of flat-out opposition to Bush’s plan. “It will not happen ― and the sooner he comes to that realization, the better off we are,” Reid said a mere month after assuming the role of Democratic leader.

It sounds like an obvious move in retrospect. Bush eventually withdrew the proposal under heavy opposition and the Social Security gambit is one of several moments that observers believe gave way to the decline of Bush’s presidency. But given the number of fiscally conservative Democrats in the party at the time, assembling a united front against Bush was far from a given.

Following a period in the 1990s and early 2000s when Democrats had become convinced that scorning “big government” and endlessly compromising with Republicans was the only route to reclaiming power, Reid insisted on an alternative. So while Reid was never exactly a dyed-in-the-wool progressive, he had two qualities that turned him into a natural ally of the ascendent left during the Bush years: a fierce sense of economic fairness and a belief in fighting for the Democratic agenda wherever possible.

“A lot of his staff who reside on the left of the party, there’s a reason a lot of us coalesced around him,” Rabin-Havt recalled. “It’s because of that pugilist instinct.”

Reid, left, embraces then-President Barack Obama in August 2016. He was a loyal enforcer of Obama's agenda, but broke with the president during negotiations over Social Security.
Reid, left, embraces then-President Barack Obama in August 2016. He was a loyal enforcer of Obama's agenda, but broke with the president during negotiations over Social Security.
John Locher/Associated Press

Rabin-Havt also credited Reid with encouraging internal debate inside his office, even when it was against his own positions.

For example, when Reid voted for a 2005 bill severely limiting when households could declare bankruptcy, Rabin-Havt stormed into Reid’s office to angrily vent his frustrations. Rabin-Havt assumed he would be fired, but later that day, he received a positive phone call from Reid.

“I guess I know you’ll always be honest with me,” Rabin-Havt remembered Reid telling him. Then, in one of Reid’s trademark moves, he abruptly hung up without saying goodbye.

Reid returned the left’s affections both because of genuine emotional identification with progressives’ passion and a canny sense of political strategy. He believed early on in the potential for online fundraising platforms like ActBlue to revolutionize Democratic politics, developed a close relationship with leaders of MoveOn, and held regular, open-ended conference calls with liberal bloggers.

“He saw that progressives could help take back the Senate in 2006,” Rabin-Havt said.

Reid, who expressed profuse regret for his 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq War, also had a sense that the liberal upstarts who criticized the war on websites like MoveOn, DailyKos, and ThinkProgress might have some insights that the party establishment lacked.

“He got it wrong,” said Shakir, who served as a senior adviser to Reid from 2013 to 2017. “He said, ‘Hey, I got it wrong. I want to hear from people who got it right.’”

“What he’s getting out of all this is an appreciation that there are people who are fighting a fight that is born out of deep conviction and conviction quite frankly that he shared,” Shakir added.

Reid granted the “netroots” enormous legitimacy at a time when they were a fledgling force. He agreed to deliver a keynote speech at the liberal Yearly Kos conference in Las Vegas in 2006. The conference would later rebrand as Netroots Nation — to this day, the most celebrated confab for progressive activists, vendors and politicians.

Reid’s more staid advisers wanted him to reenact former President Bill Clinton’s “Sista Souljah” moment and deliver harsh truths to the left ahead of the 2006 midterm elections. Reid refused, focusing instead on the importance of liberal websites in educating the public and helping Democrats take back Congress.

Chris Cilizza, then a columnist at The Washington Post, declared incredulously, “Conservative Mormon a Darling of the Kos.”

Shakir, who previously served as editor-in-chief of the liberal outlet ThinkProgress, remembers his surprise when he got a call from Reid’s staff in 2007 to come in for a meeting. Reid was unhappy that ThinkProgress was depicting him as insufficiently dogged in his opposition to Bush’s infringements on civil liberties.

It was rare for such a high-ranking official to summon a liberal blogger to his office.

“What they effectively said was, ‘We’re going to break down the walls so you know who we are, you know our strategy, you know what we’re fighting for … You don’t need to think you have an enemy here, you actually have an ally here,’” Shakir remembered.

Reid’s blunt manner of speaking and take-no-prisoners approach to shepherding the Democratic agenda were common threads through the remainder of his tenure as the most senior Senate Democrat.

At times that even led him to break with his party. He famously lost patience with then-President Barack Obama’s effort to broker a “grand bargain” with Republicans that would trade Social Security cuts for increases in federal revenue. After a prolonged back-and-forth with Republicans during the lame-duck Congress of December 2012, Republicans hadn’t provided the Obama White House with a counteroffer to their latest proposal. The White House wanted Reid to again propose cutting Social Security ― by adopting a stingier cost-of-living adjustment ― in order to restart negotiations. Reid reportedly threw the paper note bearing the suggestion into a blazing fire in the fireplace of his U.S. Capitol chambers.

“He hated people who were bullies.”

- Faiz Shakir, former senior adviser to Reid

For the most part though, Reid was as fierce a guardian of Obama’s agenda as he had been an opponent of Bush’s. He championed the strategy of allowing Republicans to shut down the government in the false hopes of defunding the Affordable Care Act in 2013, refusing to accept anything but total surrender from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and his allies in the House.

Facing skepticism from Democrats who wanted the party to consider bargaining with Republicans over the shutdown, Reid was unflinching, Shakir remembered. “Harry Reid was like, ‘We’ve got to stand up to bullies,’” he said. “He always had that innate understanding: He was willing to take on power. He hated people who were bullies.”

Reid’s approach paid off. Just over two weeks after the shutdown began, congressional Republicans agreed to fund the government unconditionally.

Later that year, when Senate Republicans began using the filibuster an unusually high number of times to block votes on Obama’s appointees to the federal judiciary, Reid threatened to end the use of the filibuster for judicial and cabinet appointments. Against the GOP’s protests, Reid followed through on his threat, enabling Obama to shape the federal judiciary.

“The Senate is a living thing, and to survive, it must change as it has over the history of this great country,” he declared.

After Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016, some Democrats fretted that he would have the chance to take advantage of the rule change that Reid had enacted.

Reid expressed no regrets for his decision.

“I doubt any of us envisioned Donald J. Trump’s becoming the first president to take office under the new rules,” Reid wrote in The New York Times. “But what was fair for President Obama is fair for President Trump.”

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