Would Democrats Be Better Off With 59 Senators -- And A New Majority Leader?

Would the Democratic Party, and Senate Democrats in particular, be better off if current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid loses his re-election bid next year? This is a provocative question, but it is now one that needs consideration, since Reid's poll numbers in his own state remain so dismal. The possibility of Reid becoming only the second Majority Leader since the 1950s to lose his own seat (Daschle was the other one) is looking more and more like the safe bet (to put it in gambling-friendly Nevada terms, as it were). Which leads to the question of what impact this will have on the Senate, what impact on the Democratic Party, and what impact on the country at large.

To do so, lots of assumptions must be made (which will no doubt be ridiculously inaccurate when the election does happen -- such is the nature of political prognostication). The election is still over a year away, and a lot of things can happen in the meantime. Reid's popularity could go up among his home-state voters (he will likely have a hefty amount in his campaign warchest). Democrats in general could be riding a wave of support nationwide, after passing health care reform and after the economy recovers and job losses end. Then again, Democrats may have failed on health care reform, and the job losses could continue right up to election day. These two subjects, in my opinion, will do more to dictate the type of playing field Democrats face in 2010 than anything else. And they could both easily go either way, at this point.

So, for the purposes of argument here, we're going to assume that both the Democrats and the Republicans hold all their current Senate seats. Maybe some wins and some losses, but the numbers stay the same across the board. This is extremely unlikely, I should point out, but as I said, this is just for the purpose of setting up my main discussion, not an actual attempt at calling the Senate balance at the end of next year.

So, the Republicans hold 40 seats, the Democrats hold every seat except Harry Reid's. But Reid loses, flipping one seat to the Republicans -- which also loses the mythical filibuster-proof majority for the Democrats. The other fallout from Reid's loss would be that the Democrats would have to pick a new majority leader. And that could possibly do more for the Democrats than holding on to that sixtieth seat would have.

Of course, this would depend on who the Democrats picked to lead them in the Senate. There are a lot of choices, many of whom most people aren't familiar with -- because they're not media hounds. And there is a whole spectrum of political leanings to choose from as well. Now, I don't expect the Democrats to pick either a hard conservative or a hard liberal to the spot, although they might indeed surprise me. The Majority Leader's job is often filled by a compromise candidate who is selected for his knowledge of the Senate, and Senate procedure (seniority also figures in this choice a bit). Or by someone who is seen as particularly effective at moving legislation, or at moderating arguments between different Democratic factions.

This is kind of how we got Harry Reid in the first place, it should be pointed out. Meaning getting rid of Reid as Senate leader may just mean someone of his ilk winds up replacing him.

But what if the Democrats picked someone with some political spine, who was a lot better than Reid at holding his party together? A no-nonsense guy or gal who cracked the whip and cracked some occasional heads, and got some things done. At the very least, someone who could give a commanding and forceful press conference, instead of doing an impression of Caspar Milquetoast.

This would change the tenor of the debate in the Senate. If Democrats were on the offense on their own agenda, instead of Reid's perpetual defensive moves, could they be more successful even with only 59 votes? If the Democratic Senate leader started a debate by saying "Democrats believe X, and we are going to fight to pass a bill which reflects those values," rather than starting the debate (as Reid has done, too many times to count) by saying "Democrats believe X, but we're probably not going to hold the line on it, and we're totally open to compromise on the issue with the Republicans, so let me begin the debate by offering to give away half the Democrats' demands in return for absolutely nothing from Republicans. Everyone happy now?"

This may sound harsh, but it is born of Reid's continuing disappointment as the leader of the toughest chamber of Congress. Reid seems to begin each fight by caving. Since Reid is an ex-boxer, let me put this in Nevada boxing terms: he has a "glass jaw." One tiny hit, and he shatters. His fear of getting punched, to continue the metaphor, leads him to dive to the canvas rather than taking even the first blow, at times. Add to this his apparent inability to strong-arm his committee chairmen into producing the bills he wants, and you get exactly the situation we find ourselves in now in the Senate (see: health care reform).

Now imagine a Senate leader more in the mold of L.B.J. One of the reasons Johnson was picked as John F. Kennedy's running mate was the bipartisan respect for his ability to get bills through the Senate. L.B.J. would do what it took to get the bill passed. Imagine someone like that in charge of 58 other Senators. Instead of Reid's instant capitulation, imagine a majority leader who started the conversation by saying "America strongly supports our position on Y. We are going to fight hard for all Americans in this debate, and we offer the hand of bipartisanship to those on the other side of the aisle who are listening to the 72 percent of Americans who want Y. I caution any Republicans, though, because voters are going to remember whether you joined with us as we passed Y, or whether you put your own political goals ahead of doing what your constituents want you to do."

I simply cannot imagine Harry Reid ever delivering a line like this. But it does indeed frame the question -- could a strong-willed fighter of a majority leader be more effective in passing the Democratic agenda than what we have now? Could a politically-savvy leader convince enough wavering Republicans that it was in their best political interests to join the Democrats to overcome the inevitable filibuster threats? Even with only 59 Democrats, could a different Senate leader actually be more successful than Harry Reid has been with 60?


Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com