The Failures of Leadership

I recently finished reading Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate, the volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson that covered his years in the Senate.

One thing that Caro’s coverage of LBJ’s Senate tenure makes clear, segregation was preserved and civil rights were delayed for upwards of half a century because of the dominance of conservative Southerners over liberals when it came to understanding the rules and procedures of the Senate. Time after time, liberals were out maneuvered in the civil rights fight. Often their troubles came from an inability to properly count their votes; other times they simply were outsmarted by the master legislators of the South who knew Senate procedure cold. The South had to know how to use the rules to their advantage and they had to know how to count their votes, because they did not control the majority on civil rights and they hadn’t for decades.

This Politico post by Glenn Thrush on Reid and Schumer’s back and forth on the public option shows how lacking Senate Democrats are when it comes to both knowledge of Senate procedure and the vote counts on this issue. Much is made by conservative Democrats, Max Baucus, and Harry Reid’s office that the health care bill has to be something that can get 60 votes to overcome the Republican filibuster. But this simply isn’t the case. As long as there are 100 sitting Senators, a filibuster requires 41 votes to be maintained. Republicans only have 40 seats. There is simply no such thing as a “Republican filibuster.” A filibuster can only take place when one or more members of the Democratic caucus joins the Republican minority to stop an issue from moving forward. Any Democratic Senator who is complaining about a Republican filibuster is being at best dishonest with the public and at worst revealing how little they know about the legislative body in which they serve.

Yesterday Markos hit Reid hard for abdicating his leadership role in the Senate. I can’t say that, to this point in the health care debate, Reid has done anything other than fail to manage the caucus. Going back to Caro and LBJ, what made Johnson the “master of the Senate” was that he knew it cold. He knew the rules and procedures. He knew the vote count. He knew what would get every member to where he wanted them to be on a vote. When members of his caucus weren’t with them, he would beg, bully, or horse trade to get what he wanted. If a member of his caucus still didn’t go with him — if they weren’t on his team — he would punish them. For members who’d been in the body for a while, that would often mean simply ignoring their existence, both in terms of legislation they wanted moved forward and refusing to talk to them, turning his back when they entered a room. For more junior members, he would keep them off of the committees they wanted to be on (though he certainly did this to more senior members who’d waited a while for a spot to open up on a desired committee).

LBJ redefined the Senate during his tenure as Leader of the Democratic caucus. He dramatically shifted power from the major committee chairs to the leader. By the time he was done, the Majority Leader had infinitely more power than when he started. But it doesn’t seem that’s the case today, to judge by the performance of Harry Reid.

One of the things I’ve heard in the past during my work in politics is that Reid was first able to get the position of leader in the Democratic caucus by making a deal with the chairs of the major committees: they would back him in exchange of him giving them the power to run the show on their issues of jurisdiction. In a sense, Reid came to power with the agreement that he neuter himself as a leader. This decision in itself shows the sort of leader Reid would be: one without a strong desire to have power or use power to control the caucus.

There are not 60 votes against the public health insurance option in the Senate. There are not 41 Republican votes to filibuster health care reform. Quite simply, the fate of health care reform lies in the ability or inability of Harry Reid (with assistance from President Obama) to control the Democratic caucus. Harry Reid must be accountable for getting reform an up or down, simple majority vote. He can do this if he can control his caucus and he can do it on a bill that includes a public option if it is in the underlying bill he brings to the floor. And anyone in his caucus who stands in his way could face consequences for years following a move against him.

But we’re talking about Harry Reid and as such, I can’t expect anything that resembles leadership from him. He is a leader in title only and he resembles the incompetents who preceded LBJ – Scott Lucas and Ernest McFarland, men who had no control of their caucus and were completely ineffective majority leaders. Of note: both Lucas and McFarland were voted out of office after their short tenures as feckless majority leaders, something that should worry Harry Reid deeply.

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