Republicans' war on Harry Reid

The GOP is slamming Harry Reid as hard as it can. But it’s not really a fair fight

By Steve Kornacki
Published August 6, 2012 12:18PM (EDT)
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nev. speaks to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 11, 20010, following a meeting with the Senate Democratic Caucus.  (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)     (AP)
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nev. speaks to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 11, 20010, following a meeting with the Senate Democratic Caucus. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (AP)

It was open season on Harry Reid on the Sunday talk shows, with one Republican after another ripping into the Senate majority leader for his unsubstantiated claims about Mitt Romney’s taxes.

"As far as Harry Reid is concerned, listen, I know you might want to go down that road,” Republican national chairman Reince Priebus told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week.” “I’m not going to respond to a dirty liar. If that’s on the agenda, I’m not going go there. This is just a made-up issue."

Reid continues to insist that he’s been told by a Bain investor who’s a “very credible” source on the subject that Romney didn’t pay taxes for 10 years. Reid has refused to identify his source, offered no corroborating evidence, and admitted that he’s not even sure the claim is valid.

But the attention he’s generated has forced Romney, who won’t release any tax records from before 2010, to address a topic he’s badly trying to avoid. Last Thursday, Romney challenged Reid to “put up or shut up,” and on Friday he maintained that “I have paid taxes every year, and a lot of taxes.” On Sunday, Romney surrogates fanned out in an effort to destroy Reid’s credibility and shame him into silence.

"This is a reckless and slanderous charge by Harry Reid," Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "This is a guy who hasn’t released his own returns and for three years, can't get a budget passed in the United States Senate."

On CNN, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham branded Reid’s gambit “so out of bounds.”

“I think he's lying about his statement, of knowing something about Romney," he said.

The harsh words had no apparent effect on Reid, whose spokesman quickly released a statement repeating the charge and saying that “this issue is not going away until Romney decides to be straight with the American people and release his tax returns.”

This illustrates a very basic and serious problem for Romney and his supporters: Reid is essentially immune to shaming, which means there’s not much they can do to shut him up.

As I noted on Friday, Reid really had no business winning a fifth term in the Senate two years ago. Had Republicans nominated anyone except Sharron Angle, he would have been retired by Nevada’s voters. And while Angle’s ideological extremism and erratic antic were just enough to save Reid, he continues to rate poorly in surveys; his fellow Nevadans are still tired of him. Combined with his advancing age (he’ll turn 73 at the end of this year), this makes it unlikely that Reid will seek reelection in 2016. Nor does public opinion matter much to his ability to carry out his job as majority leader, a job he might even give up before his term is over.

Consequently, a concerted Republican assault isn’t as likely to affect him the way it would most other politicians. If Reid is willing to play the role of punching bag and absorb some outrage from the media – and it seems like he is – then he has no incentive to stop, no matter how many names he gets called. This is especially true because his ploy is also achieving its goal. Romney has been counting on the political world eventually moving on from questions about his taxes, but when the top leader in the U.S. Senate accuses a major party presidential candidate of paying no taxes for a decade, the media is going to report and discuss it – and the presidential candidate will have to respond to it.

Depending on how long this goes on and what else he says, this whole episode could end up inflicting long-term damage on Reid’s image. But it could also keep alive a line of attack that Democrats see as critical to stopping Romney in November. Whatever you think of Reid’s tactics, this really is the definition of taking one for the team.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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