For once, Harry Reid held his tongue.
The Senate majority leader had agreed to participate in a conference call Monday afternoon with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar about renewable energy, but it was obvious that the questions would instead be about Reid’s own windiness and his decision to go nuclear on Mitt Romney last week by suggesting that the Republican presidential candidate didn’t pay taxes for 10 years.
The call’s moderator tried to direct reporters away from Reid’s constantly replenishing verbal energy, saying that the “media are asked to focus their questions on today’s announcement only.” Yet even that was too chancy for the Democrat, who, just before the Q&A, announced: “I’ve got to go dedicate a new veterans’ hospital now, and, uh, thank you very much. Ken, I’m going to leave the heavy lifting to you. Bye.”
It makes sense that Reid wouldn’t want to be questioned on the particulars of his outlandish accusation that Romney is the tax deadbeat of the decade. But those close to the senator tell me that he’s delighted with the conflagration he sparked last week and that he is determined to keep it going. This soft-spoken Mormon from rural Nevada is quite deliberately turning himself into the mad dog of the 2012 campaign.
The talk after Reid’s tax broadside was that it was another of his famous verbal gaffes, the latest symptom of a kind of political Tourette’s syndrome that has caused the senator to call George W. Bush a “loser” and a “liar,” Alan Greenspan a “hack,” Clarence Thomas an “embarrassment,” the war in Iraq “lost,” Capitol tourists smelly, and his aides “fat.”
But this is something different for Reid, an extension of a role he assigned himself in 2008 when he endlessly hectored John McCain for missing Senate votes, accusing the Republican presidential nominee of being “too busy on the campaign trail to do his day job.” When McCain suspended his campaign to return to Washington to work on the financial crisis, Reid reversed himself, saying that McCain’s gesture “would not be helpful” and was “a campaign photo op.”
This time, Reid loyalists say he decided to go after Romney without consulting the Obama campaign — although the indications I get from Chicago are that the campaign is pleased with Reid’s attack. Reid is known to regard President Obama as too soft.
“This is a calculated move by an ex-boxer going after what he thinks is a serious weakness in his opponent’s defenses,” said Jim Manley, who was Reid’s longtime communications adviser.
Reid, who won reelection in 2010 and doesn’t plan to run for office again, is happy to absorb blows in return — and they have been ferocious. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the accusation is “beneath the dignity of his office,” while on Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Reid is “lying,” and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus branded Reid “a dirty liar.”
Dirty? Maybe. In a breach of Senate decorum, or what’s left of Senate decorum, Reid’s chief of staff, David Krone, told Politico on Sunday night that Graham and Priebus are “a bunch of henchmen for Romney” who “couldn’t hold a candle to Harry Reid.” It’s rare for a staffer to insult a senator on the record.
But if Reid’s accusation against Romney is reckless, it isn’t necessarily a lie. More likely, it’s an instance of Reid taking a piece of information he heard — in this case, he attributed the information to a Bain Capital investor — and running with it, much like he did in 2008, when Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said in a private meeting with Reid that insurance companies were in financial distress. Reid left the meeting and spoke publicly about “a major insurance company, one with a name that everyone knows, that’s on the verge of going bankrupt.”
Insurance shares plunged, and Reid’s office had to walk back his wild allegation.
But this time, there is no retreat. Reid was half-cocked when he fired away with the anonymous Bain investor’s accusation, but his assault on Romney was premeditated. He doesn’t know Romney, but he was already on record saying that the Republican “couldn’t be confirmed as a dog catcher” by the Senate because he hasn’t released his tax returns.
Now Reid, at home on a long Senate recess, is sidestepping requests that he provide evidence, saying it’s up to Romney to disprove the allegation. After Reid left Monday’s conference call with national reporters before taking questions, he demurred later in the day when Nevada reporters asked him to substantiate the charge.
“This whole issue is not about me,” he demurred.
He’s just delivering the message — with glee and bare knuckles.
For previous Washington Sketch columns by Dana Milbank, go to washingtonpost.com/danamilbank.