Harry Reid has one of the most important jobs in Washington. If only he could be as big as the office he holds.
A “media advisory” came out Sunday night announcing that the Senate majority leader would be hosting a teleconference, but the topic wasn’t Libya or the “fiscal cliff” or even the presidential race. No, the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate wanted to use his enormous megaphone to beat up on a Republican businessman running for a House seat in Reid’s home state of Nevada.
It just so happens that the man, Danny Tarkanian, had been a candidate to run against Reid in 2010, but the majority leader assured listeners that “there’s nothing personal in this.” He then proceeded, in highly personal terms, to argue that Tarkanian is unfit to serve because of a $17 million judgment issued five months ago against him and others over a failed real estate deal.
The judgment, sought by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., is being appealed, but Reid wasn’t about to let a legal technicality such as due process get in his way.
“The FDIC rarely, rarely loses, especially on a slam-dunk like this,” Judge Reid determined in the conference call Monday afternoon.
He further argued that Tarkanian’s decision to defend himself in court is “a Hail Mary pass” that “is not going to change the facts.” The top Democrat in the Senate declared that Tarkanian’s insistence on his legal rights is “a big stall” to avoid a bankruptcy declaration before the election.
Reid, a former prosecutor, may be correct that Tarkanian won’t prevail in his appeal, and that he’ll be forced into bankruptcy when he has to post bond in the case (Tarkanian denies this). But it seems absurdly parochial, and beneath the dignity of Reid’s office, to involve himself in the seedy details of an obscure House race. Doesn’t the man have better things to do with his time — like, say, negotiating a way out of the looming meltdown of the federal government’s finances?
I had dialed into Reid’s call in hopes of asking this, but his staff cut off the Q&A. Reid took three questions from Nevada reporters and then pretended to solicit more. “Don’t rush off! Anybody have their questions? I don’t want them to think I’m trying to avoid things. . . . I’m right here, at my little home in Searchlight.”
In fact, Reid’s staff didn’t allow more questions. Zach Hudson, a spokesman for the Nevada Democratic Party, later explained: “We just had a lot of reporters who wanted to ask questions on the call and only a limited time for it.”
Limited time? That makes it sound as though Reid is working hard on the nation’s problems out there in Searchlight during the endless congressional recesses, although the other major issue that got him attention during the breaks was his unsupported accusation that Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for a decade.
Certainly, Reid isn’t alone in diminishing his office. His Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell (Ky.), is the one who proclaimed that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” But that makes it all the more important for Reid to act like a grown-up.
When the new Senate convenes in January, it will almost certainly be more narrowly divided — and either Majority Leader Reid or Majority Leader McConnell will find the place ungovernable. It’s bad enough that Republican and Democratic senators now campaign against one another without the chamber’s most powerful figure plunging himself into the details of a House race.
The judgment was issued against Tarkanian (the son of the famous former basketball coach at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas) before Republicans chose him in the primary. He’s now in a close battle with Democrat Steven Horsford, although the new district is heavily Democratic.
“Horsford’s ahead, he’s not going to lose this race, but I want to make sure, and that’s why I’m glad that you and others are on the line,” Reid told reporters on the call. Although the Republican denies it, Reid insisted that bankruptcy was “inevitable” for Tarkanian: “He won’t be able to post that bond. He’ll have to declare bankruptcy sooner rather than later and his assets will be seized by the federal government.”
“The question,” Reid posited, “is: How can voters trust him to tackle major issues in Congress,” such as the debt, “if he can’t handle his own finances?”
Here’s another question: How can Reid tackle major issues in Congress if he’s wasting energy on parochial squabbles?
For more Washington Sketch columns, visit washingtonpost.com/milbank.