Reid, who died on Tuesday after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer, was elected to the Senate in 1986 and served as majority leader from 2007 to 2015. Those who have followed Reid’s career know that he preferred the negotiations of legislating over press conferences and public performances.
As a man of few words, Reid gave short answers when I interviewed him for an event at Princeton University in November and the virtual format of our conversation, which was held on Zoom, certainly didn’t help. With about 10 minutes to go before the talk was over, Reid declared he was done. It was hard not to chuckle inside, though I kept a straight face. And despite the challenges of the interview, I was thrilled to speak to such a historic figure.
Reid famously scrapped the filibuster for most presidential nominations in 2013 — a decision Republicans later used to their advantage and took one step further by eliminating the 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court justices, which helped former President Donald Trump solidify a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
When I asked Reid about going for the “nuclear option,” however, he said he had no regrets. The former senator told me he no longer thought that the filibuster was beneficial for American democracy, and he stood behind his role in diminishing the procedural rule. He said he believed Republicans had already grown accustomed to abusing the filibuster before his 2013 decision, rendering the upper institution incapable of handling the issues of the day. And he was right. Democracy can’t work if gridlock is the norm.
As Reid wrote in The New York Times in August 2019, “If not for abuse of the filibuster, we would have passed major legislation addressing some of our country’s most pressing issues under President Obama: Millions of undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children would have a pathway to citizenship through the Dream Act; millions of Americans would have a government-run public option as part of health care reform; and the American Jobs Act and the ‘Buffet Rule’ requiring the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes would be law, further strengthening the economy and helping to address the issue of income inequality.”
In other words, Congress needs to get rid of the filibuster if it stands in the way of tackling the most pressing problems of our era.
Reid’s basic insight about American politics was that the Republican Party had become increasingly radical in ways that were dangerous to democracy. As he explained in 2019, “The Republican Congress created Trump.” He understood what political scientists call the asymmetry of American party politics, which explains the GOP’s more extreme shift to the right than the Democrats’ move to the left.
To be sure, Democrats had (and still have) their own left wing. Reid, known as a centrist, was well versed in negotiating with both the progressive and moderate flanks of the Democratic Party throughout the Obama presidency. But Republicans had collectively become much more extreme. This was not just with regards to policy but the rules of politics themselves.
Since the rise of Congressman Newt Gingrich in the 1980s, who promoted a smashmouth style of partisanship, the leadership of the GOP has increasingly disregarded the norms of civility and governance.
The Republican Party began to wield the filibuster as a weapon of obstruction, stifling a significant number of nominations under President Obama, and play chicken with issues such as raising the debt ceiling. “It’s time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete,” Reid said in 2013 when he unleashed the nuclear option.
Reid reflected on that decision in 2019 and wrote, “I previously assumed, perhaps wrongly, that the fever would eventually break — that Republicans would be forced by the American people to put their country above their party. I assumed the calls for action on critical issues would be heard — that collegiality in the Senate would prevail. That never happened.”
That’s surely why Reid stood by his 2013 decision. Long after pundits had repeatedly weighed the costs of the “nuclear option,” he continued to push for the filibuster to be abandoned. “We need to get the Senate working again,” he wrote in September, mere months before he died. “The sanctity of the Senate is not the filibuster. The sanctity of the Senate — in government as a whole — is the power it holds to better the lives of and protect the rights of the American people.”
As Democrats memorialize the late senator, they need to remember the insights of this clear-eyed lion of the upper chamber. Reid, who was hardly a rebel, understood through years of experience that the dynamics of politics were changing, and one party had taken a sharp turn to the right.
As a result, he was willing to abandon procedures that the so-called Senate establishment had once considered sacrosanct. Democrats, who are currently weighing the possibility of instituting bold reforms in order to address issues like voting rights or climate change, ought to think hard about the lessons that Reid learned during the course of his career.
Reid was a congressional insider, but he came to understand that the rules of the game were being so abused that they posed a danger to our democracy. If Democrats want to honor his legacy, they would do well to consider moving forward with substantial changes to allow majorities to be more responsive to the massive challenges that we face in the coming years.