The Kingmaker

Harry Reid may be the only person who can keep the Democrats from killing one another before selecting a nominee. But will he live long enough to do it?

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid walks in a hallway in the Capitol.
Doug Mills / The New York Times / Redux

LAS VEGAS—Swing past Caesars Palace; head up the Bellagio’s driveway, where its famous fountains are erupting to an auto-tuned Cher hit. Walk by the Dale Chihuly glass-flower ceiling above the check-in line, and the animatronic exhibit with the half-human, half-monkey figures. Head past the blackjack tables and the jangling slot machines and the chocolate fountain to the austere concrete corridors beyond them. There, getting wheeled around in a red metal-frame wheelchair is the 80-year-old man on whom the unity of the Democratic Party in 2020—if not the Democratic nomination—may hinge.

If he can stay alive that long.

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Harry Reid, who retired in 2017 after representing Nevada for 30 years in the U.S. Senate—a dozen of them as chair of the Democratic caucus, eight of them as Senate majority leader—was supposed to be dead already; his pancreatic cancer was forecasted to prove fatal within weeks. But he’s still here, which is how I came to be talking with him, not long before Thanksgiving, in a conference room at the Bellagio, asking him why he remains the person to whom many of the Democratic presidential candidates come for advice and anointment.

Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren have both stopped by for meetings and checked in via phone. Pete Buttigieg made a special pilgrimage to see him. Bernie Sanders welcomed Reid to his hospital room after his recent heart attack. Before Mike Bloomberg started filing the paperwork to enter the primaries, he didn’t alert many Democratic Party figures—but he did call Reid.

I asked Reid why this is so.

He smiled, running his right hand over his left wrist, then his left hand over his right wrist. He usually knows exactly what he wants to say, but seconds ticked by. He tapped his foot. “I don’t know ...” he said, stalling.

“You must have some idea,” I pushed him.

“I’m glad they do it,” he said. “I enjoy visiting with them.”

I asked what he tells them.

“I answer their questions, try to be as candid as I can be. I want them to know that I’m not jerking them around. If they’re headed in the wrong direction, I’ve told them that on occasion. I think that our Democratic hopefuls have to understand the difference between a primary and a general, and I try to make sure they understand the difference. It’s okay now to try to—at some event where you have other candidates there with you—to try to move a little to the left. But I just want to make sure they understand that that’s the way the game is played, and they better be careful not [to] get out [so] far, they can’t turn around.”

If defeating Donald Trump rests on the Democratic Party unifying early and strong around a nominee, then the current state of things looks ominous. Polling suggests a scenario in which four different candidates could each win each Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina—with a fifth candidate, Bloomberg, the one with the deepest pockets, only then entering the primaries. Not a recipe for rapid coalescence—and conceivably a situation in which the Democratic convention arrives next July with candidates still scrambling for delegates and no one in possession of a majority. In that case, who could play the role of party elder to mediate among the various factions?

Barack Obama would seem to be the natural choice; he’s not only the last Democratic president, and the only one since Franklin Roosevelt to be elected twice with majorities of the electorate, but he remains the most popular figure, by far, in the Democratic Party. Yet it would be hard for him to appear to remain neutral. He’s good friends with one top-tier candidate, Joe Biden, his vice president for eight years; he’s expressed public doubts and private annoyance about the socialism-inflected movement inspired by another, Bernie Sanders; he’s had an uneasy relationship with a third, Elizabeth Warren, since she briefly worked for him setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; and Buttigieg has explicitly tried to position himself as the next Obama. (Obama actually has deeper roots and a closer friendship with a fifth candidate, Deval Patrick, than with any of these four.) But beyond this, Obama doesn’t want to be the party mediator or convention broker. Part of why he’s retreated from the public is because he’s hoping the party will move past him, and he doesn’t think that his being seen to have handpicked Trump’s opponent would be good for Democrats’ odds in the general election. There’s also the more self-interested worry about his legacy: What would it say about him if he couldn’t get a deal done, or if his handpicked candidate loses to Trump?

So if not Obama, then who? Not Bill or Hillary Clinton—they’re too loathed by some of the very factions they’d be trying to soothe. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is the de facto leader of the party, and people close to her hope and expect that she might be asked to mediate, based on her skill at steering the party toward the center-left. But she doesn’t have much of a relationship with any of the candidates or their campaigns aside from Biden, so she wouldn’t be able to exert personal suasion effectively.

That leaves the man, hairless due to chemotherapy, sitting across from me. Reid knows all the candidates who are within range of contention for the nomination; his former aides populate their campaign staffs. Perhaps most important, given the intransigent nature of Bernie Sanders and his supporters—who were notoriously reluctant to yield to Hillary Clinton last time around—Reid may be the only politician in America other than Sanders himself who’s trusted by Jane O’Meara Sanders, the senator’s wife and possibly most fight-hungry defender.

On this day, 14 of the candidates were in town for a Democratic event, so I asked some of them and their aides about who, if not Reid or Obama, could hold the party together if the race were still unresolved by late spring. Cory Booker didn’t agree with my premise, arguing that the race would be decided before then—but he conceded that if he’s wrong, the only person who could unify everyone might be Reid. “Who else has the authenticity in our party? I’m not sure.” I asked Warren whether anyone else had a greater range of relationships with the relevant players across the party than Reid, and her answer was one word: “No.” When I asked other candidates, I could see panic setting in. “Oh shit—Reid’s got to live,” said one aide in a representative response.

I asked Reid whether he thinks about his own mortality in relation to the 2020 election and the future of the Democratic Party. “I don’t dwell on it,” he said gently.

What would you say to the people who worry about your health? I asked Reid.

“Let them keep worrying,” Reid told me. “Maybe say a prayer for me once a month.”

The last time Reid tried to broker a Democratic détente, it didn’t work.

In May 2016, Reid’s car dropped him off at the Clintons’ house in Washington. Hillary was out on the campaign trail, so Bill was on his own, which was how Reid wanted it. Reid could see all the polls predicting Hillary in a walk, but he was also listening to his brother, Larry—yes, it’s Harry and Larry—who lived in a trailer park in Nevada and liked Donald Trump, so Harry was more nervous than almost any other Democrat at that point about Clinton losing. He’d set off on one of his missions to try to save the Clintons from themselves, by finding a way to make a deal with Bernie Sanders and bring him into the Clinton fold. “I thought it was so unnecessary to have any friction [between Clinton and Sanders],” Reid told me. (At this point in the campaign Sanders had no way of winning, but he was still accumulating delegates, and Reid was worried about how much damage from a protracted fight might extend into the fall.) The Clintons should give Sanders reasons to claim victory in accepting defeat, Reid argued. He had some suggestions, such as booting Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida as the chair of the Democratic National Committee (Sanders didn’t like her and had made DNC bias against him a major issue in his campaign) in favor of Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, who would be palatable to both camps.

Bill Clinton listened (he “was always easy to talk to,” Reid said), but the Clintons were still in Corleone mode, and their offer to Sanders was: nothing. The former president walked Reid out, then stood in the doorway waving goodbye as the car drove off. “Reid knew he didn’t have the deal,” one person involved recalled to me recently. “It was really about keeping the line of communication open in the hopes that there would be a deal.”

While head of the Democratic caucus in the Senate, Reid loved using his power to outmaneuver his Republican colleagues. Now out of office, he’s grown to love exercising a different kind of authority, as a deadpan sphinx or elliptical oracle. His pronouncements arrive with the mystique of messages from another plane of existence, like the ant farmer surveying the tunnels from outside the glass. Consider his recent declaration, in the midst of Warren’s squirming over her position on Medicare for All, that she knew her health-care plan couldn’t work and didn’t really believe in it, sending a public signal to the senator from Massachusetts that her campaign wasn’t pleased about. He’s determined to use his oracular power to make sure Democrats don’t fight their way into the fall again next year, urging whoever loses to accommodate the winner—and whoever wins to accommodate the loser. Don’t let people on your own side become your enemies, he said. “That’s what I try to articulate to my friends.”

Reid said he agrees with Obama’s warning two weeks ago that the electorate was not as into progressive revolution as some candidates and Democrats on Twitter want to believe—but he also assured me that the party isn’t on a self-destructive bender. “You can go back and look at presidential primaries for as long as you want to go back, and candidates are always criticized in the primary for being too far to the left. But as time moves on, you wind up being more center. It’s going to happen this time, just like it always has,” he said.

Moreover, opposition to Trump will unite Democrats, he predicted, and heal the rifts among them. “We know that to say four more years of Trump will not be good for the country is a gross, gross understatement.”

“What happens if he wins is a nightmare I don’t want to get into,” he added later. America’s standing in the world is in danger, he said, as is the basic functioning of our government, not to mention the future of the climate.

Before the interview, I’d been warned that while Reid is in better shape than he seems, he speaks in a whisper these days and I might have a hard time hearing him. That didn’t prove to be the case, but he struggled at one point to lean forward enough to reach a water glass on the table. Still, he continues to keep close tabs on the candidates and take meeting after meeting. Late that evening, he brought in Warren and Biden for separate meetings with Nevada climate activists.

When Sanders had a heart attack in Las Vegas at the beginning of October, his campaign was in a panic, not even telling reporters which hospital he was in. Reid called Sanders’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, to say he knew exactly where the candidate was, knew his doctors, had already talked with one of them, and wanted to come visit.

“Let’s be honest; Bernie Sanders isn’t eager to be sitting around with a lot of his fellow senators,” Shakir told me last week. “Harry Reid is in a special category. He was excited to hear—‘Harry Reid wants to come? Let’s make that happen.’” Sanders insisted on being dressed and out of bed, and he sought to make sure that the former leader would be comfortable. “They see into each other’s souls and understand each other,” Shakir said.

Ultimately, photos from the Reid visit were what the Sanders campaign used as proof of life after the heart attack: Bernie is alive, literally and politically. The Sanders team never formally asked Reid for permission to publish the photos for that purpose—permission was implied in Reid’s coming by and asking on the way out whether Sanders was planning to continue campaigning, Shakir told me.

Reid has a coyness that calls to mind the Thelonious Monk line, “What you don’t play can be more important than what you do play.” When I asked Reid whether he can envision Sanders in the Oval Office, given the senator from Vermont’s brusque personality and socialist ideology, he said, “Well, people couldn’t imagine him being elected to the House of Representatives,” and he pointed out his own role in weaving Sanders into the Senate’s Democratic caucus and putting him in charge of the Budget Committee. “Bernie has always been someone that’s shot over his—what’s the right word?—he’s always done better than people thought he would.” Reid noted Sanders’s “huge following,” and said he can’t be discounted. What he didn’t do was answer the question directly.

In contrast, when I asked whether he thought Elizabeth Warren would be a good president, he said, “Yep,” and added that she was “bright, hardworking.” He mentioned with pride that he helped discover her. Though he conceded that others thought she’d be hard to work with because of her strong views, as a senator, “she was always someone who would try to bring people in the caucus together.”

How about Biden? “I have the greatest admiration, respect for Joe. He’s treated me well from the day I stepped into the Senate—I have great admiration for his life story; I think he’s overcome a lot. And there’s not a negative thing I can say about Joe.” When Reid was leading the Senate Democrats and Biden was vice president, Reid’s approach to dealing with Republicans was more adversarial than Biden’s Let’s reach across the aisle to make a deal style, so I asked him if Biden is right when he says he’s the candidate who knows how to best work with Republicans. “That’s a different approach than I had, but maybe they needed him. So I’m glad he feels that way. I’ve worked with Senator McConnell, and I wish him luck.”

Reid and Obama have often talked about their love for each other—at the candidate event that night, Reid was presented with a framed newspaper of the two men hugging—so I asked him whether Buttigieg reminds him of Obama. “He really does have a gift of communication like Obama had,” Reid said. “Obama was a little more effusive. Buttigieg is a little more soft-sell.” He noted that Buttigieg’s strength is the aspect of the race that’s surprised him so far. Booker, Reid says, “has it all: Rhodes Scholar, tight end for Stanford.” He noted that Amy Klobuchar had just called him a few hours ago. About Michael Bloomberg, he made sure to point out: “He should spend some of his money developing state parties—he’s got the money to do it.”

A few days later, I asked Warren why she kept calling Reid. “Because Harry is very insightful. I never call Harry that I don’t learn something,” she told me.

But what about his guidance on not getting too far out on a left-leaning-limb in a primary?

Warren laughed. “You know, I always listen to Harry’s advice.”

Has his advice changed what she’s done with the campaign—like in the past month, say, when she triangulated how she’s pitching the transition to Medicare for All? “Harry’s advice is always valuable.”

I noted that her skill at dodging my questions would make Reid proud.

“Oh, I love Harry,” she said.

If the selection of the Democratic nominee does come down to Reid brokering a compromise, whom might he back? He won’t say, of course, and has promised not to make any endorsement until at least after Nevada’s primary, at the end of February. But he’s been talking up Warren since the 2016 election ended, and she was the candidate he was decidedly the most effusive about, calling her “one of the finest people I’ve ever worked with.” And many former Reid staffers occupy prominent roles on the Warren and Sanders campaigns and on lefty Twitter.

Does all this mean that you’re a secret liberal, or you’re more progressive than people thought? I asked Reid.

“I’m glad you think it’s a secret,” he told me.

A few minutes after we finished the interview, Reid was rolled across the hallway, where he told a group of reporters that the race to be the Democratic nominee “is now very fluid.” In our interview, I’d pressed him about what would happen if that fluidity were to persist longer than was good for the Democrats. Does he feel the need to stay alive until at least March or April, when most of the primaries have passed, so that if necessary he can bring about an end to that fluidity?

“I got to make it to March or April to see how the Nationals do again,” he said.

Okay, if you’re not going to broker a compromise among warring candidates, who could do it?

Obama, he suggested.

But what if Obama can’t or won’t?

“I don’t want to talk like I’m the only person that could do it,” he said. “I’m sure there are others.”

Who? I asked him. He couldn’t come up with anyone else.