You'd think someone who made it to the position of senate majority leader might have learned that old Mark Twain adage, "Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel."
So, what's going on with Harry Reid (D-NV) escalating a squabble with the main newspaper in his state? Chalk it down to just one more bit of miscalculation and misfortune that's been haunting both Nevada politicians and Democratic congressional leaders for quite some time.
Reid is currently trailing two Republican challengers in polls -- including the son of former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian by double-digits.
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To make matters worse, Reid is part of Nevada culture that is, to say the least, not in its best days. The other senator, Republican John Ensign, has been caught up in a most-unsavory sex scandal. Gov. Jim Gibbons, also a Republican, is deemed a "sure loser" by the Las Vegas Review Journal because of a host of personal and political problems.
The Review Journal would be the same newspaper that Reid is mixing it up with. On Sunday, the publisher revealed that Reid snapped at the paper's advertising director: "I hope you go out of business." Needless to say the publisher didn't take the comment well:
But to fully capture the magnitude of Reid's remark (and to stop him from doing the same thing to others) it must be called what it was -- a full-on threat perpetrated by a bully who has forgotten that he was elected to office to protect Nevadans, not sound like he's shaking them down.
No citizen should expect this kind of behavior from a U.S. senator. It is certainly not becoming of a man who is the majority leader in the U.S. Senate. And it absolutely is not what anyone would expect from a man who now asks Nevadans to send him back to the Senate for a fifth term.
If he thinks he can push the state's largest newspaper around by exacting some kind of economic punishment in retaliation for not seeing eye to eye with him on matters of politics, I can only imagine how he pressures businesses and individuals who don't have the wherewithal of the Review-Journal.
"Clearly he wasn't serious," Reid spokesman Jon Summers told CNN in an e-mailed statement. "Once again, the editors at the Review-Journal got it wrong."
That statement, of course, guarantees that the story will continue -- thus explaining the wisdom of Twain's advice. A politician never gets the last word in such a situation. (Reid might not get much favorable press in the rest of the country either, as word of this incident spreads. The newspaper industry is in tough shape everywhere; wishing that a paper goes out of business is not the best way to curry favor with writers and editors.)
If Reid's polls continue to sink going into 2010, he could go on to become the third Democratic leader to lose a re-election fight over the last 15 years: In 1994, the Republican revolution swept out House Speaker Tom Foley in the GOP landslide -- the first sitting speaker to lose re-election since 1862; Foley lost to lawyer George Nethercutt. Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) -- the then-minority leader -- lost to John Thune in 2004.
Reid may well face the same problem as Daschle -- leading a caucus that is far more liberal than the state he represents. Except Reid is in a more problematic position: He's trying to push through an ambitious agenda -- on both energy and health-care -- of a new president. These issues just might not sell in a state with libertarian sensibilities.
If the issues are against a politician, the best hope to remain in office to use charm and personality: Getting into a public, very ugly fight with one of the largest papers might not be the best idea (even though the media is always a favored whipping boy of politicians in trouble). Appearing to want to drive a paper out of business can get a politician portrayed as arrogant and out of touch (especially by said newspaper). Arrogance -- fraternal twin to pride -- can be as fatal to an electoral career as an actual scandal (a major reason Tom Foley lost in '94 was because he sued voters of his own state over term limits).
Since he can't win a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel, Harry Reid needs to figure out what he can do to make sure he's not caught over a barrel. Lesson One: Just do your job. Oh, yeah and try to be polite to ad execs major newspapers in social situations.