The Democrats' Hope in the Desert

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Nevada Senator Harry Reid's capitol office is decorated—incongruously, given his taciturn demeanor—with large portraits of two fabulously flamboyant Americans, Andrew Jackson and Mark Twain. The Jackson portrait is dynamic, wind whipped, but slightly obligatory. Old Hickory, the first President who was not an aristocrat, was the brawling founder of the modern Democratic Party, and Reid, newly elected Senate minority leader, is now the highest-ranking Democrat in Washington.

But Twain dominates the room, with his white suit, wild hair and mischievous eye. His is an unexpected, ironic presence in a powerful politician's office—Twain assumed that all politicians were felonious—and Reid's explanation that the pseudonym Mark Twain was born in Nevada because Samuel Langhorne Clemens took his first newspaper job at the Virginia City, Nev., Territorial Enterprise doesn't fully explain the place of honor.

Then, about five minutes into his answer to my question "Why did you become a Mormon?" Reid lets slip that he once got into a fistfight with his father-in-law-to-be, an observant Jew who opposed the marriage for religious reasons, and I realize how perfect both portraits are. Reid's story is Twainian, a western desert tall tale, and his background is as brutal and hardscrabble as Jackson's. "I guess it's no secret that both my parents drank heavily," he finally says. "I didn't learn my family values in Searchlight," he adds, referring to the tiny Nevada mining town where his father committed suicide and his mother washed laundry for the local brothels.

"Mormons were the most admirable people I met when I left home, and I guess I was looking for some stability. I don't like to talk about religion much, but you asked."

It is one of the more delightful consequences of the recent election that Democrats—now caricatured as the party of elite secularists—find themselves led in the Senate by a pro-life, pro-gun, pro-war, red-state convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But Reid's ascendance has little to do with ideology; it is a practical matter. The Senate is the only place in Washington where Democrats, though a minority, can force the Administration to make a deal. They can do so because of arcane rules that require a 60-vote majority to stop a filibuster and get almost anything done. As it happens, the filibuster is a tactic Reid quite enjoys, since it gives him the opportunity to stall proceedings by reading aloud long passages from the book he wrote about Searchlight.

His utter mastery of the rules and his reputation for honesty are why he got the job after his friend Tom Daschle of South Dakota was defeated for re-election.

"Harry is rock solid, even on the little things," says New York Senator Chuck Schumer. "If he promises you there won't be a vote after 7 p.m., he'll find some creative way to make sure the vote doesn't happen. His whip counts are always accurate. If he says he'll get you five votes, he does. And he is tough. When people do the wrong thing, when they take the easy way out on a vote, he lets them know it. And he doesn't forget." These sorts of things, as opposed to charm or ideology, are what really matter when Senators choose their leaders.

Still, it may be a collateral benefit that Reid enters the arena at this particular moment, with Democrats yet again pondering their fate. The Washington donkeys seem exhausted by the Kerry loss, lacking the energy for their usual intramural vilification. The left traditionally screams that the party lost because it didn't feed enough red meat to its base, but that argument doesn't work this time—the base turned out in droves. Instead, there seems to be a tacit understanding that far too many members of the Democrats' supposed natural constituency, the middle class, voted Republican because of national security and "values" issues. There is hope that Reid may help the party decode those issues.

If he does, it will be done by example only. Reid is not an orator or a crusader. In our conversation, he was artfully vague about his legislative plans and reluctant to offer prescriptions for resuscitating the party other than the mild suggestion that Democrats should pay more attention to rural America. Indeed, a good example of the Reid style can be found in his handling of that hottest of issues, abortion. He opposes it except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at stake. But he has leavened that position with vehement support for contraception. He joined with Maine Republican Olympia Snowe to offer a bill ordering private health-insurance plans to cover birth control. He successfully filibustered for including such coverage in federal-employee health plans. Kate Michelman, former head of naral Pro-Choice America, says, "I'm honored to be his friend."

Reid's position on abortion is both honorable and clever. These are formidable qualities in a legislative minority leader. The willingness—and toughness—to read aloud, in public, long, long passages about life in Searchlight won't hurt, either.