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The baddest man in D.C. (for the GOP)

| Sunday, Feb. 20, 2005

At this very moment, there are millions of conservatives across the land who, unbeknown to them, will soon develop an intense personal loathing for Sen. Harry Reid, of Nevada. The process, inevitable as the changing of the seasons, began when the Republican National Committee distributed a 15-page memo accusing Reid, the chief Senate Democrat, of various transgressions.

It's working. Conservative talking heads already have begun expounding upon Reid's treacherous ways. Although many rank-and-file Republicans may have no strong feelings about Reid today, and some have never even heard of him, it won't be long before the very mention of the words "Harry Reid" will send GOP partisans into paroxysms of rage.

The need for the campaign against Reid is clear enough. Unlike the icy Hillary Clinton or the hotheaded Howard Dean, Harry Reid does not easily lend himself to hostile caricature. He is anti-abortion and anti-gun control. As The New York Times reported, Reid "is appearing more often on national television, where strategists in both parties say he comes off as reasonable and evenhanded."

Republicans carried out a nearly identical operation to drive up antagonism against Tom Daschle, the previous Democratic Senate leader, who also was inconveniently mild-mannered. Republicans sent out talking points, and in short order conservatives everywhere found themselves deeply vexed by the previously inoffensive, low-profile South Dakota senator.

It's entirely natural that Republicans would have no love for a leading Democrat. And there's nothing wrong with hating a particularly loathsome member of the other party, or even of your own party. But this particular campaign is highly dishonest.

A headline on the RNC document, for instance, calls Reid the "Chief Democrat Obstructionist." Now, "obstructionist" has a very specific meaning. An obstructionist doesn't merely try to stop legislation he disagrees with. If that were the case, every minority leader in a legislative body would be guilty of obstructionism. Obstructionists try to stop any legislation from passing, good or bad, merely to prevent the majority party from claiming credit. During the first two years of the Clinton administration, Republican Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole kept setting his preconditions higher and higher until eventually he renounced his own healthcare bill. Now that's obstructionism.

The Reid charges center on his opposition to privatizing Social Security. To suggest he has flip-flopped, the RNC quotes Reid as saying in 1999 "most of us have no problem with taking a small amount of the Social Security proceeds and putting it into the private sector." Fox News apparatchiks Brit Hume and Sean Hannity have trumpeted this as evidence that Reid has reversed himself out of expediency.

But the plan Reid praised, which Clinton floated five years ago, was not privatization. It called for the government to invest a portion of the Social Security trust fund in stocks. Unlike President Bush's plan, it wouldn't have exposed individuals to any greater risk.

The real reason Republicans object to Reid is that he's a Democrat who disagrees with key points of Bush's agenda. Of course, you can't very well whip the Fox News audience into a lather by pointing at Reid and shouting: "He's a Democrat, and he's voting against us! The nerve!"

Hence the need for insults like "obstructionist" and "partisan" -- another favorite term of abuse against Reid and Daschle -- which are merely ways of making membership in the other party sound like some kind of affront.

This kind of transparent propaganda is, sadly, a normal function of political parties. But if you get gulled into believing it, or repeating it, you're either a dupe or a partisan hack.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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