Harry Reid: Praying that History Won't Repeat

It's axiomatic that the most dangerous place in Washington (perhaps in all America) is between Senator Chuck Schumer and a camera. A barely safer location is being a Democratic leader of the United States Congress.

This year, Harry Reid is proving that. Despite having served in public office nearly continuously since 1964, leading the United States Senate majority since 2007, and now having the luxury of facing the controversial former Nevada Assembly member Sharron Angle this November, his chances for reelection remain decidedly dicey. Reid's situation, however, is hardly unique.

Since 1950, an unusual number of top Democratic congressional leaders have faced the wrath of irate voters -- and not lived (politically) to tell about it. At least, not from Washington, anyway.

While Republican leaders have on occasion faced their own problems (Senate Majority Leader James Watson lost his Indiana seat in the GOP's 1932 bloodbath, and House leaders Joe Martin, Charlie Halleck, Newt Gingrich, and Bob Livingston all fell victim to age or their own peccadilloes -- but not at the ballot box), it is usually against Democrats that voters directly inflict their revenge.

The phenomenon started with Senate Majority Leader Scott W. Lucas of Illinois. Lucas  succeeded Alben Barkley as Senate Democratic Leader when the aged Barkley moved on to become Harry Truman's Vice President following HST's upset 1948 victory. In 1950, however, the stress-ridden Lucas ran into two buzz-saws: former GOP Congressman Everett McKinley Dirksen and Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. McCarthy, who had just launched his investigations into the Communists-in-government issue, excoriated Lucas as "soft on communism," and "Wizard of Ooze" Dirksen triumphed by 294,000 votes -- a comfortable 54%-46% margin.

The out-of-touch-until-it-was-too-late Lucas didn't see it coming. Returning home to Illinois to campaign, he expected fawning gratitude from Illinois voters. He was stunned when they wouldn't even shake his hand.

Enough Democrats, however, survived to retain their Senate majority, with Arizonan Ernest McFarland replacing Lucas. In 1954, though, McFarland ran not into McCarthy, but into two new GOP buzz-saws -- Dwight Eisenhower and Barry Goldwater. Caught in the undertow of the Eisenhower tsunami, as Ike blasted Democrats for "Communism, Corruption, and Korea," McFarland ("the darling of the Truman gang") lost to forty-three-year-old department-store magnate Goldwater by 7,000 votes.

Democratic leadership had, in fact, become toxic. Adding to Democratic woes, party Senate Whip Pennsylvania's Francis J. Myers had also lost in 1950. Senate Democratic strongman Richard B. Russell, up in for reelection in Georgia in 1954, feared that he might become the next casualty if he assumed party leadership in 1953. The prudent Russell instead supported freshman Lyndon Johnson for minority leader -- and, in so doing, changed the course of history.

Scandal, not ballots, brought House Speaker Jim Wright to ground in 1989 after a 279-page House Ethics Committee report found that Wright had violated House rules 116 times. Most notable among the charges involved Wright's self-published paperback Reflections of a Public Man and his flagrant use of it to circumvent rules limiting honoraria. Organizations purchasing bulk amounts of this slim volume, and thus funneling money to Wright, included the National Association of Realtors, Ocean Spray, the Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association, and the Fertilizer Institute. Wright resigned as Speaker in May 1989. A month later, he resigned from the House itself.

Wright's successor, Tom Foley, fared little better. Caught up in widespread revulsion against Bill Clinton's health care schemes, he fell victim to the Gingrich revolution of 1994, not only losing his own speakership, but also becoming the first sitting Speaker to forfeit his House seat since Pennsylvania Radical Republican Galusha A. Grow's 1862 defeat. Conservative attorney George R. Nethercutt swamped the once-invincible Foley (stung as well by his very visible lawsuit to overturn Washington State's term-limits law) in a twelve-point landslide.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Democratic leadership changed with regularity. Conference members dumped West Virginia's Robert C. Byrd as Majority Leader in favor of Maine's George J. Mitchell in 1989. In 1994, the wily Mitchell (still only 61), perhaps sensing Republican victory in the wind, declined to seek reelection. Maine Republican Congresswoman Olympia Snowe succeeded him in office.

South Dakota's Tom Daschle replaced Mitchell to lead Senate Democrats, repeatedly alternating as Majority and Minority Leader, as control of that body kept swerving between the parties. In 2004, with Daschle having become the face of the national Democratic Party and a symbol of opposition to George W. Bush's still-popular agenda, Daschle fell to former Congressman John Thune by 4,508 votes, 51%-49%.

Harry Reid succeeded Reid, and, like Daschle, as long as he might cloak his mainstream Democratic agenda in the mantle of soft-spoken mid-America moderation, his situation remained secure. But when Democrat leadership too visibly reflects marvelous synchronicity with the Leahys, the Kerrys, and yes, the Frankens of their conference (not to mention the Pelosis or Obamas), storm clouds arise at polling booths from Sioux City to Elko.

Harry Reid may yet return to Washington. But if Reid fails to make that journey, he will not be the first, nor -- though the Beltway may not wish to believe it -- the last.

David Pietrusza (www.davidpietrusza.com) authored Silent Cal's Almanack: The Homespun Wit & Wisdom of Vermont's Calvin Coolidge and 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents.
It's axiomatic that the most dangerous place in Washington (perhaps in all America) is between Senator Chuck Schumer and a camera. A barely safer location is being a Democratic leader of the United States Congress.

This year, Harry Reid is proving that. Despite having served in public office nearly continuously since 1964, leading the United States Senate majority since 2007, and now having the luxury of facing the controversial former Nevada Assembly member Sharron Angle this November, his chances for reelection remain decidedly dicey. Reid's situation, however, is hardly unique.

Since 1950, an unusual number of top Democratic congressional leaders have faced the wrath of irate voters -- and not lived (politically) to tell about it. At least, not from Washington, anyway.

While Republican leaders have on occasion faced their own problems (Senate Majority Leader James Watson lost his Indiana seat in the GOP's 1932 bloodbath, and House leaders Joe Martin, Charlie Halleck, Newt Gingrich, and Bob Livingston all fell victim to age or their own peccadilloes -- but not at the ballot box), it is usually against Democrats that voters directly inflict their revenge.

The phenomenon started with Senate Majority Leader Scott W. Lucas of Illinois. Lucas  succeeded Alben Barkley as Senate Democratic Leader when the aged Barkley moved on to become Harry Truman's Vice President following HST's upset 1948 victory. In 1950, however, the stress-ridden Lucas ran into two buzz-saws: former GOP Congressman Everett McKinley Dirksen and Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. McCarthy, who had just launched his investigations into the Communists-in-government issue, excoriated Lucas as "soft on communism," and "Wizard of Ooze" Dirksen triumphed by 294,000 votes -- a comfortable 54%-46% margin.

The out-of-touch-until-it-was-too-late Lucas didn't see it coming. Returning home to Illinois to campaign, he expected fawning gratitude from Illinois voters. He was stunned when they wouldn't even shake his hand.

Enough Democrats, however, survived to retain their Senate majority, with Arizonan Ernest McFarland replacing Lucas. In 1954, though, McFarland ran not into McCarthy, but into two new GOP buzz-saws -- Dwight Eisenhower and Barry Goldwater. Caught in the undertow of the Eisenhower tsunami, as Ike blasted Democrats for "Communism, Corruption, and Korea," McFarland ("the darling of the Truman gang") lost to forty-three-year-old department-store magnate Goldwater by 7,000 votes.

Democratic leadership had, in fact, become toxic. Adding to Democratic woes, party Senate Whip Pennsylvania's Francis J. Myers had also lost in 1950. Senate Democratic strongman Richard B. Russell, up in for reelection in Georgia in 1954, feared that he might become the next casualty if he assumed party leadership in 1953. The prudent Russell instead supported freshman Lyndon Johnson for minority leader -- and, in so doing, changed the course of history.

Scandal, not ballots, brought House Speaker Jim Wright to ground in 1989 after a 279-page House Ethics Committee report found that Wright had violated House rules 116 times. Most notable among the charges involved Wright's self-published paperback Reflections of a Public Man and his flagrant use of it to circumvent rules limiting honoraria. Organizations purchasing bulk amounts of this slim volume, and thus funneling money to Wright, included the National Association of Realtors, Ocean Spray, the Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association, and the Fertilizer Institute. Wright resigned as Speaker in May 1989. A month later, he resigned from the House itself.

Wright's successor, Tom Foley, fared little better. Caught up in widespread revulsion against Bill Clinton's health care schemes, he fell victim to the Gingrich revolution of 1994, not only losing his own speakership, but also becoming the first sitting Speaker to forfeit his House seat since Pennsylvania Radical Republican Galusha A. Grow's 1862 defeat. Conservative attorney George R. Nethercutt swamped the once-invincible Foley (stung as well by his very visible lawsuit to overturn Washington State's term-limits law) in a twelve-point landslide.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Democratic leadership changed with regularity. Conference members dumped West Virginia's Robert C. Byrd as Majority Leader in favor of Maine's George J. Mitchell in 1989. In 1994, the wily Mitchell (still only 61), perhaps sensing Republican victory in the wind, declined to seek reelection. Maine Republican Congresswoman Olympia Snowe succeeded him in office.

South Dakota's Tom Daschle replaced Mitchell to lead Senate Democrats, repeatedly alternating as Majority and Minority Leader, as control of that body kept swerving between the parties. In 2004, with Daschle having become the face of the national Democratic Party and a symbol of opposition to George W. Bush's still-popular agenda, Daschle fell to former Congressman John Thune by 4,508 votes, 51%-49%.

Harry Reid succeeded Reid, and, like Daschle, as long as he might cloak his mainstream Democratic agenda in the mantle of soft-spoken mid-America moderation, his situation remained secure. But when Democrat leadership too visibly reflects marvelous synchronicity with the Leahys, the Kerrys, and yes, the Frankens of their conference (not to mention the Pelosis or Obamas), storm clouds arise at polling booths from Sioux City to Elko.

Harry Reid may yet return to Washington. But if Reid fails to make that journey, he will not be the first, nor -- though the Beltway may not wish to believe it -- the last.

David Pietrusza (www.davidpietrusza.com) authored Silent Cal's Almanack: The Homespun Wit & Wisdom of Vermont's Calvin Coolidge and 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents.