Allow me to make a prediction: by 2030, if not much sooner, Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada will be regularly mentioned in a highly positive way by the Public Communications department of the church when the question comes up about Mormon involvement in civic affairs. As perhaps the crucial player in making it likely that the United States government will introduce general egalitarian reforms in how health care is delivered and paid for around the country, his accomplishments will not be ignored by a church intent on making it clear to the curious that our Christian principles were not in any way officially limited by the particular political culture of the Intermountain West.
Which is really just a long-winded way of saying that we Mormons are eventually going to be hearing Reid’s name a fair amount, and so we might as well get ahead of the curve right now.
Let’s be clear: I’m not a big fan of the health care bill that, early this morning, Reid and his people started moving towards all but inevitable passage. (“All but inevitable”: Senator Lieberman could change his mind, again; Senator McConnell could go insane and open fire upon his colleagues with that concealed handgun he no doubt carries with himself everywhere; a meteor could strike the Senate building, expressing God’s disapproval; etc.) I like it, but I don’t love it, for reasons which can be considered and debated, if you so choose, over here. For purposes of this post, I’m making a simpler claim: that Senator Reid has managed to pull off something quite remarkable, and that by managing it, he has likely made himself, a Mormon, one of the indisputable heroes of the quest to create a broader social welfare net in the United States. A little surprising, that.
Was holding together 60 Democratic (actually, 58 Democrats adn 2 independents) votes in the face of near-total Republican opposition over a heavily compromised, undeniably convoluted, constantly changing bill really that remarkable of an achievement? Yes, it was. The U.S. Senate, designed to be an aristocratic deliberative body that would balance popular interests against those of the collective states, has evolved over the past few decades into a maddeningly undemocratic supermajority institution, where the threat of a filibuster–not an actual filibuster, mind you; hardly anyone ever does that anymore–forces Senate leaders to get 60 out of 100 senators to agree to even bring legislation up for a formal vote. It didn’t used to be that way; as recently as 40 years ago, when President Johnson’s Democratic party passed Medicare legislation, and back when opponents in the Senate would actually filibuster legislation, as opposed to preventing votes from being cast in the first place, the job of the Senate majority leader was much easier: in the end, they just needed a majority of the body to agree with them. Reid needed a majority, plus nine more. That he was able to do so, despite massive opposition on both the left (who hate all the deals Reid has been forced to make) and the right (who just don’t want anything in the bill to pass, period), was improbable from the start. The vote this morning signaled a remarkable achievement for Reid.
A lot of people dislike Reid–a large number of them in his home state of Nevada. He seems like an angry man, a tough talker, a loudmouth and a grump. But by all accounts, his fellow Democrats in the Senate adore him. He approaches the Senate the way more than a few of us Mormons might recognize as how one approaches discussions in Sunday school, or debates in ward councils….or how general authorities approach their own councils, for that matter. Constant gentility, frequent apologies, no personal disagreements being voiced publicly (they’re to be whispered fervently in the foyer, of course), and with an overriding commitment to consensus, loyalty and unity ultimately leading everyone to a conclusion. Perhaps not a great conclusion, maybe not even a very good one…but a conclusion nonetheless, with the alternative–dissolution, the group falling apart and everyone going their own way–being seen as too terrible to contemplate. If hardball tactics are called for, then they’ll be used, but only in the least confrontational manner possible (like waiting until someone is out of town to take a vote). In truth, Reid’s negotiations with his Democratic caucus sound, to me anyway, like nothing so much as a stake president trying to stay on schedule during a meeting with his ornery, long-winded, opinionated High Council.
Which suggests another possibility to me: that perhaps Reid’s presence as the Democratic leader in the Senate was…providential. A window opens for the most powerful nation in the world to learn a lesson from some of its less-powerful allies, and actually pass some legislation that, one way or another, reflects a broader set of social concerns than any that had been passed in more than a generation. But standing in the way was the Senate. The charisma and speaking skill and moral passion of a Senator Obama actually probably wouldn’t have made a bit of difference there. But the patient, determined working of a man who believes his party membership and ideology is a demand of his faith, and who, though Senate Majority Leader, still gets his home teaching done? Maybe God cares about what happens in Washington DC after all. At least, I bet, once all the dust settles and the American public moves on to the next controversy, that’s something you’ll hear the folks at Public Communications saying occasionally. (Though off the record, of course.)