Salon interview: Harry Reid

The Senate minority leader on why he supports Joe Lieberman, how blogs help the Democrats and why he doesn't support impeachment (hint: President Cheney).

Topics: 2006 Elections, Joe Lieberman, Harry Reid, Social Security,

Salon interview: Harry Reid

Can a red state Mormon who’s voted against abortion rights and thrown his support behind Joe Lieberman find love at a blogger convention?

Ask Harry Reid.

While it’s probably too much to call the Senate minority leader a hero of the blogosphere, Reid has won the respect of many Democratic bloggers for holding his colleagues together on Social Security and pushing the Republicans to investigate the Bush administration’s misuse of intelligence on Iraq. DailyKos’ Markos Moulitsas Zúniga has made a career out of taking Democrats to task for failing to take stronger stands, but he carves out an exception for Reid as one of the few senators “with a pulse.”

Reid delivered the closing address at the YearlyKos convention here Saturday night, and he used the occasion to talk about two things near and dear to the assembled crowd: the power of the bloggers and the misdeeds of the Bush administration. Reid credited bloggers with “making sure the truth is heard” on everything from the Swift Boating of John Kerry to the outing of Valerie Plame. And he made a renewed push for the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee to complete its long-delayed investigation into how the Bush administration “cherry-picked and hyped” the case for war. In connection with that effort — and to ensure that Iran isn’t just Iraq revisited — Reid said he’ll propose legislation this week that will require Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte to develop a process for vetting any statements the president, the vice president or certain Cabinet officials make about Iran and “other key challenges to our national security.” Reid said the purpose of the legislation is simple: to prevent administration officials from “throwing around intelligence on Iran” without the backing of the intelligence community.

Before speaking to the YearlyKos crowd, Reid talked with Salon in a conference room just off the convention floor. In the course of 20 minutes, he discussed the effect blogs have had on Washington; argued that Dick Cheney is single-handedly running the entire intelligence community; described his personal relationship — or lack thereof — with George W. Bush; and defended his decision to endorse Lieberman over his Democratic primary challenger, blogger favorite Ned Lamont.



In his opening speech the other night, Markos said that the elites have failed us: “Republicans have failed us because they can’t govern; Democrats have failed us because they can’t get elected.” I assume you agree with the first part.

I’m not too sure that he’s wrong on the second part.

When I first got this job as the Democratic leader, I knew that we had to do something different. See, I’m not one who believes that we lost in 2004 because of abortion or gay marriage. The day after the election, I said two things.

I said that we lost the election because we did not campaign in rural America. Las Vegas — 70 percent of the people live here in Las Vegas. Twenty percent live in Reno. Ten percent live in the 15 rural counties. So you would think that if John Kerry did well in the two counties, he’d win the election. He did, but he lost. Why? Because of the rural counties. You go to Douglas County, 94 percent turnout, he lost that 2 1/2-to-1. Lowest turnout in any of the 15 counties, 84 percent. He lost them all about the same as in Douglas County. So he lost the election in Nevada by 2 percent.

They talk about the turnout not being [good], the long lines in Cleveland or wherever it was. There was simply nothing in rural Ohio. It was the same in Ohio as everywhere.

The second thing that I said — the president said it was his No. 1 issue, privatizing Social Security. Now, this is the day after the election, when he’s at his height and we’re at our low, and I said, “We’re not gonna let you do that.”

But I didn’t have the pathway to stop that. I kind of got the idea that I needed help. That’s why [for] my first retreat in January, the first time it ever happened, I invited Markos and the guy from MoveOn, Eli [Pariser]. They came and talked to all my senators. Senators had never heard of a blog. You know, they knew nothing about this. So we were able to defeat the privatization of Social Security, I believe, because of the blogs

Do you think the blogs help with the electoral process as well?

Of course. Look what MoveOn has done. Look what MoveOn has done.

But MoveOn lost in 2004.

They didn’t lose. They started a new world out there. They didn’t lose. I don’t put that in the loss column. I put it in the column that they started something unique and new. I don’t consider that a loss.

My philosophy is a little basic here. I think when Congress passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, our country reverted back to the way the world used to be in the 1500s when everything was controlled by wealth and power. Back then, it was the church — churches — and monarchies. After that act passed, the power changed to these mass media conglomerates, one person owning 1,500 or 2,000 radio stations, the joining together of all these TV stations. So wealth and power [controlled again]. What these guys have done is broken through that. They don’t have any money. They’ve done it on their own. You don’t need money to do what they do, and they have taken on these giants.

Are the blogs just another constituency for you, sort of an online AFL-CIO or something?

I wish that were the case, but it’s simply not the truth.

I’ve come to learn one thing: They’re not controllable. If you do something they like, they pat you on the back. If you do something they don’t like, they kick you in the rear end.

Has that changed how you work or you think?

I think it’s allowed me to be myself, to try to take on the giants, you know, because I feel like I have a little bit of help. When I started this thing with the privatization of Social Security, I felt like David going against Goliath. Bush and the media out there, it was a 9-foot giant, and here I was a teenage kid. But after we fired that rock and hit ‘em in the middle of the forehead and beat them, they’re no longer 9 feet high. They’re about my size. We have a better shot at ‘em. Still not as good as it would have been had we not had everything consolidated, and the Fairness Doctrine [had not gone] out the window, and all the things that were so “fair.” We don’t have that, but we’ve made progress.

And how did the blogs help in the Social Security fight?

They wouldn’t let Bush off the ground. They were able to help us get crowds at places. They were able to drive the regular media crazy by having people write stories that they didn’t want to write. They helped us slay the giant.

But do you see a corrosive effect, on the other hand, say, in what the blogs are doing to Joe Lieberman?

You know, I love Joe Lieberman, like him a lot.

But, you know, my wife and I have been together for a long, long time, but she doesn’t think I’m perfect, and I don’t think she’s perfect. So…

In December, when Lieberman was just back from a trip to Iraq and putting out an extraordinarily positive vision of progress in that country, you said that he was “alone … literally alone” in his view, and that even Republicans didn’t agree with him. Has he made it harder for the Democratic Party to take a stand, to be where it needs to be on Iraq?

I think that we, last December, did a good thing for the country when [Carl] Levin, [Joe] Biden, [Russ] Feingold, [Christopher] Dodd, Kerry, we worked out an amendment we were going to offer on the defense authorization bill that was the Democratic Senate’s position [on Iraq]. And lo and behold, we were able to get 79 votes on that. What did that do? The law of the land today is that this year, 2006, will be a year of significant transition. That’s the law. President Bush needs to live up to that law. And we as Democrats agreed with that, we got virtually every person to vote for it, including — I’m confident that Lieberman voted for that. We may have lost maybe Ben Nelson, but I think we virtually got everybody.

The test is … how we’re going to build upon that, because next week we’re going to go to the defense authorization bill again…

[Reid may be giving Lieberman more credit than he's due. The amendment introduced by Levin and backed by the other Democrats Reid mentioned said that 2006 should be "a period of significant transition" in Iraq, but it also called on the president to provide Congress with "a campaign plan with estimated dates for the phased redeployment" of U.S. troops. That amendment was defeated, 58-40, and Lieberman and Nelson were among those voting no. The amendment that won 79 votes -- including Lieberman's and Nelson's -- was an alternative proposed by Republican Sen. John Warner. Warner's amendment incorporated the "period of significant transition" language and much more from the Levin measure, but it did not include a requirement that the president provide Congress with "estimated dates" for pulling out troops. Six Democrats voted against the Warner amendment: Robert Byrd, Kent Conrad, Tom Harkin, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry and Patrick Leahy.]

Between the capture of Zarqawi and the formation of an Iraqi government, Bush might be able to make an argument that 2006 has become a “period of transition” in Iraq.

I don’t think he has any argument until we have a plan for bringing the troops home.

We’re spending $2.5 billion a week; we have 2,500 dead Americans; we have 20,000 wounded; wherever you watched TV this week, you saw the terrible injuries we’ve got coming in from Iraq. We’ve got Haditha, we’ve got Abu Ghraib, and we’ve got Guantánamo. So I don’t think the stage is subject to having cheerleaders out for him.

A substantial majority of the American people think the war was a mistake, disapprove of the way the president is handling it and want some or all of the troops to be withdrawn now. Why haven’t the Democrats in Washington been able to take that big fat pitch over the middle of the plate and do something more with it?

I think when you’re in a baseball game and somebody throws you four balls, there’s no reason to take a lot of swings.

You’re proposing legislation this week that will require the director of national intelligence to vet any intelligence claims the president or members of his administration make. Do you think any Republicans will actually support that?

Maybe Lincoln Chafee.

Any real Republicans?

I don’t know. You know, that’s the problem with what we have in Washington. We don’t have Republicans that represent the Republicans across this country. We don’t have moderates. When I first came to the Senate, we had lots of moderates. They just don’t exist there [now], except for Chafee.

By requiring the director of national intelligence to vet the president’s statements, your legislation almost seems like a concession that the usual Senate oversight isn’t working. That’s something the Senate Intelligence Committee might have been able to do itself.

You know, it’s interesting. I’m very concerned about this. And so I called two people who I care about a great deal who were both chairs of the Intelligence Committee, Bob Kerrey and Bob Graham. You know, there were different things that could be done because [the Republicans and the Bush administration] were just simply ignoring us. We could all resign, say, “OK, well, this doesn’t work anyway.”

But the intelligence committees that we have in the House and the Senate were set up to serve a purpose, so that there would not be the assassination of Pinochet. Not Pinochet, but who was the leader of the country, who’d they kill — Allende. That’s how this all came about. And so it was after due consideration — going to hang in there. It’s not as if nothing is happening. You know, all the hot spots, they come in and tell them about that. So there’s still some function.

But I think we’ve come to learn that the intelligence community in America is run by one person — one person — and that’s the vice president. [Sen. Pat] Roberts, who is the supposed chair of that committee — I shouldn’t say “supposed chair”; he is the chair — he can’t do anything without [Dick Cheney].

Let me give you an example. Jay Rockefeller had surgery, and it turned out a lot worse than we expected. It was spinal surgery, so he could not do his job. He had to stay home. We had worked and struggled to have a three-member Democratic oversight committee to oversee NSA stuff. They could review everything. That was the deal that was made — Rockefeller, Levin and [Dianne] Feinstein. Rockefeller can’t be there, so I talk to [Senate Majority Leader Bill] Frist, and I say, “What we need to do is have somebody replace, at least on a temporary basis, and the fourth person in seniority is [Oregon Sen.] Ron Wyden.”

So Frist, he doesn’t do anything. After a couple of days, he says, “Talk to Pat Roberts, talk to Pat Roberts.” And a day or two later, Pat Roberts says, “The vice president doesn’t want me to do that.”

Everything is run through the vice president — everything.

We saw some of that last week, when Arlen Specter went public about Cheney’s efforts to block him from having the telephone companies testify on the NSA database program before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Yeah, everything.

What kind of pressure does Cheney exert on these guys?

I don’t know. A phone call? I don’t know what he does.

But what’s the threat?

I guess he won’t like them anymore. Maybe he’ll use, like he did with Leahy, the F-word. I don’t know.

Whatever it is, they ultimately buckle under. Specter talks a good game, but –

It’s not “ultimately.” Specter is the only one who’s given an ostensible reaction, negatively [to the NSA program]. But that didn’t last. He caved in like soft cake, you know.

Do you think there will come a time when the Republicans in the Senate see Bush’s approval ratings for what they are and really start to stand up to him?

I don’t know. Cheney has such a grasp on them, I don’t think it will happen until these guys leave.

How will things be different if the Democrats take over after November?

First of all, I would hope that the third branch of government would be reestablished. We only have two branches of government now. We have the executive, the executive and the judicial. Constitutionally, we should have the executive, the legislative and the judicial. We’re going to reestablish the legislative branch of government. We’re not going to go crazy with investigations. We’ll do our oversight work, and we’ll legislate. We’ll bring stuff to the floor that the American people want — that will mean something to them. Gas prices. You know, we may even bring stuff to the floor that we lose. Republicans aren’t willing to bring anything to the floor they’re afraid they might lose. Anything that’s pocketbook issues, they lose automatically.

Unless it’s a constitutional amendment on gay marriage, which they’re happy to bring to the floor and lose.

Well, yeah, that’s true. Or the real biggie we had this week is the one that affected two-tenths of 1 percent of all America: estate tax. You know, 285 million people — not too important. But those 12,000 families — a big deal.

So we’re not going to do that. I believe in the Senate. I believe in legislating, I believe in having the Senate work its will by having debates and votes, and move on.

Nancy Pelosi has apparently taken impeachment off the table, even if the Democrats win in November.

But see, I’ve cooled that impeachment [talk] from the beginning. You know why? Who would be the president if the president were impeached? Why would I want Cheney president?

Getting back to Lieberman. You’ve endorsed him –

Absolutely. Wrote a letter to the delegates.

Why did you do that?

Because I like Joe Lieberman. I think he’s a good senator. He’s great on environmental issues. He’s been good as far as being a caucus member who contributes. And you know, I gave you an example, and it wasn’t facetious, about my wife. I’m not going to turn on Joe because I disagree with him on this issue.

Did it bother you that Lieberman has indicated he’d run as an independent if he loses the Democratic primary — or at least that he’s leaving the door open to that?

He’s never told me that. In fact, the letter I wrote for him said exactly the opposite.

Did you extract a promise that he wouldn’t do that in exchange for your endorsement?

Well, anything I discussed with Joe was of a private nature, and I wouldn’t want to embarrass him. I didn’t extract anything.

You didn’t support Howard Dean when he was running for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee.

No. But I’ll tell you one thing. I’m a friend of Howard Dean’s. He has proven to me who he is. He went out and got that job the old-fashioned way. Made phone calls, made personal contacts. He didn’t call begging me for money like some of the people did. He raised his own money. I have an excellent relationship with him. I’m a Howard Dean fan.

But are you a fan of what he’s doing with the DNC’s money, spending money on his 50-state strategy rather than focusing more immediately on 2006?

Well, look at this. He runs the DNC. I don’t run it. As we speak, we have a functioning Democratic Party in North Dakota, South Dakota, Mississippi. We’ve won elections in Mississippi, municipal elections. He’s working on having Nebraska — Nebraska has a functioning Democratic Party. So I’m his guy.

But are you happy with the way he’s handling the funding?

Oh, I wish he’d write out a check for the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] for a few million bucks, but he doesn’t have the money.

What’s your personal relationship with the president like?

[Silence.]

That’s hard to transcribe.

I’m terribly disappointed, terribly disappointed.

I cared for his father. I liked his dad. His dad wrote me three handwritten notes that I prize. Ronald Reagan wrote me a letter saying he agreed with me that the 22nd Amendment shouldn’t have been [adopted]. Ronald Reagan wasn’t a mean-spirited man. He was a good guy.

But this administration takes no prisoners. They’re very difficult to work with. It’s their way or the highway, and it’s been extremely difficult for me. So I’m not a President Bush fan.

Do you have a personal relationship with the president?

Yeah, I go to the Oval Office, and, you know, he’s nice to me and I’m nice to him. But I know his limitations, and he damn sure knows mine.

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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