How Harry Reid Tapped Liberal Bloggers to Stop Bush's Agenda
The progressive movement would not have it. Its activists would not allow the establishment to install a Senate leader who offended their values.
"The man is not representative of most Dems," wrote one diarist at the progressive group blog Daily Kos.
"I don't know what to do if they now choose to drag our party further to the right," wrote another.
"The change in our Party starts with leadership," wrote a third. "The Republicans didn't get to where they are today by compromise, they got there by rallying around their base and sticking firmly to their positions."
The unacceptable moderate they were talking about was Nevada Senator Harry Reid. In November 2004, the defeat of South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle opened up the Democratic leadership. Reid, the party's whip, quickly secured the support he needed. Progressives were horrified that a senator who'd voted against abortion rights, for the Defense of Marriage Act, and in step with the NRA would take over their party.
"Don't forget, he also sponsored an anchor baby bill!" remembered Reid's then-spokesman Jim Manley.
Yet within twenty months, Reid was delivering a speech to the first annual convention of "netroots" activists, Yearly Kos. His announcement today sparked off encomia on progressive news sites, with recaps of the bills he pushed through—repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, Dodd-Frank, the Affordable Care Act. The argument on the left was about whether New York Senator Chuck Schumer would replace Reid and drive the leadership to the right.
How did Reid become a progressive hero? After the 2004 defeats—importantly, after he had secured a six-year term by the only landslide of his career—Reid created a "war room" for Senate Democrats. He tapped Ari Rabin-Havt, the 25-year old former online director for John Kerry's presidential campaign, to reach out to bloggers and new media.
"Look, when I interviewed for Reid, I wasn't very interested in working for Harry Reid," recalls Rabin-Havt, now a host at SiriusXM. "He'd say, as a joke, Ari just came to work for me to get gambling vacations in Vegas. That was part of it! The other part of it was, coming out of the Kerry campaign, I wanted to fight Bush."
Reid took over at what turned out to be the apex of Bush's second term. It was clear to him that the Democrats could not come back to power unless they shifted the terms of debate, and he was curious about how the online left could do that.
"Reid was not a progressive," says Rabin-Havt. "Ideologically, he has progressive views and values, but he didn't fit within the movement. What he had was the same desire to fight George W. Bush that the bloggers did. He had an amazing understanding of what online communities were, and that the media environment was shifting. When I described what blogs were, he said, 'Oh, you start with the Gutenberg Bible,' and then he moved through all of communications history."
There was skepticism. "One chief of staff said to me, you know, this place got real f---ed up when C-Span came in, and you're going to f--k it up to. That attitude in 2005 very much existed."
Things changed when senators met for a short policy retreat at the Kennedy Center. Rabin-Havt invited Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas and MoveOn's Eli Pariser to brief Democrats. "Markos focused on Tom Daschle's loss and what happened with the bloggers paid by John Thune's campaign," Rabin-Havt recalls. "Senators were legitimately shocked—something they didn't understand had caused their leader to lose. Keep in mind, at this time where was no Huffington Post. Josh Marshall was a solo blogger at TPM. MSNBC had not become MSNBC yet—Tucker Carlson still had a show there."
Reid's war room built lines of communication with bloggers and the rest of the online left. Everything "gelled," says Rabin-Havt, when the re-elected president began a months-long campaign for Social Security privatization. Bloggers decried it, kept whip counts, pressured Democrats against supporting it. Reid's war room kept them informed, individually and in calls. Rabin-Havt singled out the work of Matt Stoller, a blogger who created ThereIsNoCrisis.com to build the movement against privatization. Ten years later, Stoller works for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the Senate Budget Committee.
"If he could have won a Senate vote, then Social Security would have been privatized," says Rabin-Havt. The Social Security victory strengthened Reid's ties to the left, and that only continued during a summer 2005 fight over judicial confirmations. Early in the planning of Yearly Kos, which was to be held in Las Vegas, Reid and Rabin-Havt reached out and committed to an appearance.
"We stayed quiet on it a while," says Gina Cooper, one of the lead organizers of the conference. "I truly don't know how, but it was leaked to the press. I don't know what reporter it was, but they didn't break the news, just asked Reid about it. I remember thinking how cool it was that what we were doing was important enough to be leak-worthy."
Reid's appearance turned Yearly Kos into an event. "We had so much press, it was, like, a ratio of 1:9, media to attendees," says Cooper. "And while some in the media, maybe most, thought it was nuts, there was a genuine curiosity among many as to who these people were, especially once they met them and saw how genuine and normal everyone was."
Moulitsas thinks that the synergy between Reid and liberal blogs proved that the net roots could change the rules of politics, and of political coverage. It changed who Democrats listened to.
"By creating a counterbalance to the right-wing noise machine, we started making it easier for Democrats like Reid to do the right thing," he says. "Before we came along, a Democrat had nothing to gain by being a Democrat, he or she'd be pillored by right-wing media, and who would come to their defense? Joe f---ing Klein? Fox's favorite punching bag Alan Colmes?"
Reid gave a news-making speech, using Yearly Kos as the venue to attack the Bush administration's use of intelligence to make a case against Iran. "I remember that he had a whole speech written," remembers Rabin-Havt. "He was looking over his speech, then he took it and rewrote basically the entire thing by hand." He entered the room as the Democrat who had stood between George W. Bush and Social Security privatization. He left it—after donating some boxing gloves—and within months, he was the majority leader of a Democratic Senate.