Just over a year into their respective tenures as Senate party leaders, one thing is abundantly clear: Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are a stark contrast in styles.
Impulsive, blunt and sometimes even rash, Reid has quickly made his mark as a leader who speaks his mind, isn’t afraid to throw the occasional bomb and seems to switch strategies in an instant. McConnell, meanwhile, appears to contemplate every public uttering, shuns controversy and approaches each decision with caution — especially when faced with a party divided.
“For whatever reason, Reid likes to sprinkle the gasoline around, light a match and … poof,” remarked one former Republican Senate leadership aide. “Whereas McConnell never likes to take the lid off the gas can, if he can help it.”
Neither trait would appear ideal for a party leader, especially in a narrowly divided Senate where partisanship is at its peak and compromise is at a premium. Still, both Reid and McConnell — creatures of the Senate who overcame some personal and political adversities to climb the leadership ranks — seemingly are in no danger of losing their positions as their parties’ elder statesmen.
“Each man is very much being himself — and I find that refreshing,” observed Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), a veteran lawmaker and McConnell’s closest Senate ally. “A lot of politicians try to be something different than they really are.”
Bennett characterized the Senate duo this way: “Harry is a lawyer who always wants to settle the case, rather than take it to trial. Mitch is a lawyer who always is careful not to reveal his hand. Those are two fairly different styles.”
Indeed, over the past 13 months, Reid and McConnell have shown the colors of their respective characters — personality traits that haven’t always won them favorable marks from their detractors and, at times, even from within their own ranks.
Reid has been known to telegraph a legislative blueprint and later change course, or draw a line in the sand over a particular policy position and then backtrack in the face of political defeat. What’s more, Reid has developed a penchant for using incendiary language when criticizing his opponents, including tagging President Bush a “loser” and a “liar,” calling Senate Republicans “puppets” and, just last week, accusing McConnell of making “shallow” comments while the two men were debating passage of an economic stimulus package.
Afterward, Reid apologized to McConnell and asked that the word “shallow” be struck from the record. In his remarks, Reid acknowledged his proclivity to speak off the cuff, saying: “People around here, in the Senate and the country, know me by now and I pretty much call things the way that I see them. And sometimes I need to step back a little bit and look at how I see them,” Reid said.
Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman, said his boss is a brutally honest man who has shown “he isn’t afraid to mix things up. There’s no doubt about that.” At the same time, Manley defended the Majority Leader as a Senator whose legislative style often is dictated by his passion and desire to try to change the direction of the country.
“He is who he is,” Manley explained. “He’s never going to change.”
And, it seems, especially within his own conference of 51, no one wants Reid to alter his approach. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) called his leader decisive and sincere, and he said that even if Reid falters on his first attempt to push the Democratic agenda, “he wants to make it happen.”
Reed argued that any perceived stumbles by Reid over the last year will be “a footnote to what he’s doing. He’s seriously pushing a legislative agenda. He has to get support from both sides to get it through the Senate. Sometimes he’s gotten criticized for comments he’s given, but another one of his admirable qualities is that he’s stood up and said, ‘I said it, let’s move on.’”
Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) agreed, describing Reid as an inclusive leader who listens to his colleagues and is unafraid to take on a fight, even in the face of difficult odds. And while Salazar acknowledged that Reid “sometimes can have a bite in his words and that’s something he can regret,” he said Reid deserves praise for having pulled the caucus together.
“He’s tough, he’s wiry,” Salazar said. “He’s a man from Searchlight, Nev. He’s wiry in the physical sense and he’s wiry in the political sense.”
Certainly, in that regard, Reid is no McConnell. One well-placed Republican, who has close dealings with both the Majority and Minority leaders, said privately that some GOP Senators refer to Reid as “Speaker Reid” because his political style often mirrors the rough-and-tumble ways of the House, rather than the more collegial nature of the Senate. This GOP source added, “McConnell is always careful about what he says, whereas Reid always has a burning desire to show he’s in charge.”
Careful may be an understatement to describe McConnell, who unlike Reid rarely makes a verbal blunder, keeps his political strategy close to the vest and recoils in the face of controversies like last year’s revelations of an airport bathroom sex scandal involving Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho). Some have even charged McConnell with cowering in the face of politically toxic issues like immigration or earmark reform, two issues that last year forced McConnell to balance a divided Conference against his own 2008 re-election plans and the wants of a lame-duck president.
But a former aide to ex-Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said that posture might not always work for McConnell, especially when a new president is elected and if Democrats gain ground in the House and Senate later this year. Republicans, this one-time staffer argued, are going to need a leader who is willing to come out of the shadows and fight.
“McConnell can get away with staying low right now because his party is demoralized,” this Democrat said. “But does that serve him in the long run? I don’t think so.”
Immigration reform brought McConnell some of his loudest criticism since the Kentucky lawmaker became the Minority Leader in early 2007. McConnell, who didn’t announce his opposition to a bipartisan package until the 11th hour, widely was condemned for sitting on the sidelines and out of sight while the Senate spent weeks battling over the matter.
But McConnell’s allies long have contended that the GOP leader’s style reflects his desire to keep his colleagues together, not wanting to alienate a faction of his Members when an issue divides them down the middle. “On issues where the Conference is united, or nearly united, you see him a lot more,” said a Senate Republican leadership aide, adding that in contrast to Reid, McConnell believes “there’s merit to thinking before you talk and merit to not adding to the bait by not saying something.”
And, at least these days, most Senate Republicans seem to agree. Several GOP Senators said that after a year of successfully using their 49-seat minority to trip up Democratic priorities, they have found an enhanced appeal to McConnell’s quiet approach to politicking.
“Mitch’s style is a good fit for the Senate,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “He’s more deliberative and tends to be methodical. He always lets things come to the surface before he makes a decision, whereas Harry can be temperamental. Mitch’s style is very much in sync with the Senate.”
A senior Republican Senate aide agreed, saying that unlike Reid, McConnell doesn’t lay out a plan and change his strategy mid-course. This staffer referred to Reid’s recent handling of the $150 billion-plus economic stimulus bill, where Reid laid out three separate strategies before its passage.
“Our leader isn’t making promises he can’t keep, whereas their leader continues to break promises in highly public and embarrassing ways,” the staffer said.
At the same time, most Democrats and Republicans acknowledged that there is no perfect mold for a Senate leader. McConnell’s predecessor, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), certainly was less reserved, but regularly was panned for failing to understand the workings and traditions of the Senate. Conversely, Reid followed on the heels of Daschle, who often was seen as unwilling to delegate, and sometimes more accommodating to the GOP than to members of his party.
With that in mind, it seems that no Senate leader can escape the perils of the job, or the criticism that comes with it.
“There are bumps in the road,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). “But there’s a significant reservoir of respect for both leaders, on both sides.”