Friday, June 18, 2010

Harry Reid's Political Fate

Having returned to Nevada semi-permanently after a five year self-imposed exile in New England (pursuing that Ph.D dream of mine) I find a community quite unfamiliar in many respects to the one I left behind in August 2005. For one thing, there are fewer people here. I don't just mean all of my friends moved away, though that is certainly true in some regards, but there are just fewer people about. This is anecdotal, obviously, but I'm sure it can be verified by the agencies in charge of keeping track of such things, and the 2010 Census will undoubtedly bear out this observation.

Finding work is infinitely more difficult than it was when I left. I'm still looking. But any sort of position from measly laborer, to adjunct professor, from security screener to substitute teacher and anything else you can imagine seems to be scarce. Scarce is perhaps too timid a word. One almost senses that given the current prices of gold it might make more sense to imitate our ancestors of '49 (that's 1849) and go prospecting for a claim somewhere. But unlike in those days, most of the good prospecting land seems to be owned already, usually by the Federal Government.

It's still very hot. I'm not sure if I expected that to change, but it did not (unfortunately). And there are a bunch of new buildings everywhere. People actually use the beltway! No one did in 2005. It was an unused expensive boondoggle back then.

Politically things are peculiar. Jim Gibbons was a very popular man when I left. A veteran of the Gulf War and repeated congressman for the rest of the state (there were two congressional districts before the 2000 Census; one for Las Vegas, one for the rest of the State). As far as Republicans in the State went, he seemed the most respected. John Ensign was nipping at his heals. I return to find Gibbons's career in tatters and Ensign a laughingstock. The former was just rejected in his party's primary and the latter is hoping people stop laughing by 2012 when he's up for re-election. I have met with and spoken to Senator Ensign several times, once at some length. He seemed like an intelligent decent guy. His failure to resign his seat baffles and appalls me.

That brings me to the current Senate race that has gained national attention. Harry Reid, the Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate finds himself trailing his challenger, Tea Party darling Sharron Angle. Having been in New England for the last five years, the last year and a half most notably, I must say I have no personal experience with these Tea Parties. I enjoyed Rick Santelli's extemporaneous condemnation of the endless effusion of Federal money at the end of the Bush Administration and the opening of Obama's on CNBC. I was quite shocked that it inspired a nation-wide effort to lodge vocal and strident opposition against those measures and has now taken on an active role in selecting, endorsing, and supporting candidates for higher office, from Rand Paul in Kentucky to Angle here in Nevada. I'm appalled that a neophyte clown like Sarah Palin has ingratiated herself into some sort of informal leadership position among at least some portion of these people. It calls into question their judgment at the very least. There are few Republicans more ridiculed than she, and it's ironic that a movement inspired by righteous fury at expanding government should elevate a meddling mommy-state Republican like Sarah Palin to a leadership position. But this is a digression to be pursued elsewhere.

Senator Reid, from my personal experiences with the man (I have met all of Nevada's Senators for the past 14-15 years through the Sun Youth Forum, a meeting of the minds of select High School Students moderated by local notables including, during the two years I attended, Senators Reid and Bryan and then Congressman Ensign), is unpleasant and unapproachable. But he's neither foolish nor timid. He's an experienced and able politician in the sense that he knows how to win elections and wield political power. Defeating him in an election is not an easy proposition. It was very nearly pulled off by a then very popular and appealing Congressman John Ensign in 1998. He came up several hundred votes short. But Reid's arguments for his own retention then are the same as now, except now he's been in the Senate an additional 12 years and he now holds the highest position of actual political power in that body. He can credibly argue that in terms of that ugly "pork" spending everyone seems to hate except when it's spent on them, he's the man. In tough economic times a man waving money in your face can be an irresistible force.

His opponent has never won state-wide office. Why is this important? Because neutralizing Las Vegas, for a Republican, is critical to winning such elections. By this I mean, a Republican must make sure that Las Vegas is not so lop-sided in favor of the Democrat that it blots out the Republican sweep of much of the rest of the State. Reid counts on Las Vegas and its various powerful Unions (Teachers, Nurses, Culinary, etc.) to carry elections over the remainder of the State. In a midterm election, turnout is always critical and Unions are great organizing devices for turning out the vote.

His other ace in the hole in the past is that he has been able to mollify Nevada's tilt towards social conservatism (there are still a ton of Mormons living here). The Democrat from Nevada is "Pro-Life" in the sense that he opposes the right of the living to decide their own fates and to use their own bodies as they see fit. His opposition to abortion has served in the past as a way to hold onto Mormon voting affinity as well as mute the potential issue on the part of his Republican challengers.

However, this year poses certain problems for all of Senator Reid's former strategies. Waving federal money around in an election year where (at least in Nevada) many people are extremely angry over the unaccountable spending going on at the Federal level, only seems to highlight what's wrong in Government and with Senator Reid in particular. As for abortion, it has been thankfully absent from much, if not all, of the electioneering so far. I do not anticipate, barring some unforeseeable turn of events, that it will factor in anyone's vote this November. As for the Senator's elevated position in the majority party. I see that as being just as likely to be a liability if many of his constituents see his record of "accomplishment" there over the past two years to be one of irresponsible and reckless spending and legislating. The overhaul of healthcare regulations, in response to the market distortions created by the previous 40-50 years of healthcare regulations hardly struck many Nevadans as a necessary or desirable legislative goal. Nor do they view creating a fake market in carbon emissions as a pretext for inventing a host of new and onerous taxes as a wise or desirable end. And yet, if Senator Reid pursues using his powerful position as the casus prima for his re-election, he merely highlights a host of very unpopular and controversial "achievements" which threatens to motivate everyone in the state who either does not like him anyway or finds those legislative acts/goals to be antithetical to their way of thinking.

Of course, the other strategy Senator Reid has at his disposal and is currently pursuing is that of simply making the alternative unacceptable. Nevada is a closely divided state as far as party registration goes, and independents hold the real power in state-wide races. The current TV ads Senator Reid is running play up Angle's alleged dislike and opposition to the grand old entitlement programs the government currently runs, Social Security and Medicare. It is a predictable and classic move. Whether Angle holds such views is irrelevant really as no one thinks altering those programs, let alone doing away with them, is politically possible in the near future. But a seemingly large swathe of those currently receiving benefits from those programs like them, and they vote. Like the retired armies of ancient Rome, old Americans are that politically volatile group that any politician messes with at their own risk. [In the later 19th and early 20th centuries, the group playing that role in the United States was actually and litally a retired army. The Grand Army of the Republic, the veterans of the Union armies that won the Civil War, were a political force to be reconed with. Politicians meddled with their pensions at their own peril. But at least in those days it was a finite and delimited group of people that eventually died off.] Just as the former had to be given lands and generous pensions to ward off the precipitous (and all too common) march on Rome, the latter has to be assuaged that their "entitlements" are not only not going to be done away with, but that they will not be cut or even prevented from increasing (for very long anyway). If Senator Reid can convince his fellow aged citizens that his opponent is a threat to a cherished part of their existence, he might very well cobble together a strong enough coalition of voters to survive the current threat to his senate seat.

Of course, candidate Angle has lots of financial support from a national network of people who dislike Senator Reid. She's also benefiting from the outraged and excited echoes of Rick Santelli's outburst on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Whether that's enough to take down the state's most powerful, crafty, and durable politician (no one, not even his fiercest partisans, would dare claim that he's the most beloved) when he currently ranks as one of the most powerful (for good or ill) men in the country is not a matter I care to predict at the moment. If he loses it will be a poor sign for President Obama's goals over the next two years and a very obvious repudiation from a state that gave it's five electoral votes to him in 2008.

As to whether that event, should it occur, will have any immediate impact on the economic situation in the state the answer is obvious--NO. The private sector of the economy nationally is not going to be able to proceed robustly in rebuilding and expanding until it has some idea of what it's operating constraints and costs are going to be in the future. While the debt increases without an end in sight, while the congress continues passing regulatory expansions over and reorganizations of huge swathes of the economy (healthcare, finance, potentially energy), and while the President continues to prod, move, and ask for more and more, most employers will prudently hold onto their money until they can figure out how much they'll need to cover new expenses. Previous temporary tax cuts are going to expire at the end of the year on top of everything else. The economy is likely to remain stagnant and uninspiring until this situation reverses or, at the very least, stabilizes. Nevada's economy relies on the prosperity of the rest of the economy to prosper. It needs tourists and people travel less these days.

Senator Reid's ultimate fate will have some, probably not insignificant, impact on stabilization and/or reversal being possible, to say nothing of their actually occurring. Republicans have been no more credible in the realm of actually paring down the cost of government and undoing regulations. In fact, they've been less credible for promising those things and then not delivering them. It is time to test, for perhaps the final time, whether the American people, specifically the portion of them (still) living in Nevada, can vote on principles the majority of them profess to hold and then keep their elected champion committed to those principles. Or whether they've irreversibly gone down the road of being a clamoring mob, that will bow at the alter of the highest bidder and the most unscrupulous demagogue. I cannot say what the result will be, but I'm mildly pleased that it remains an open question.

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