We have a tendency in Washington to attribute whatever gets done in politics to whoever occupies the White House at that moment.
It's among our very worst habits.
Take the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — better known as Obamacare. The bill was written in the Senate and modified in the House. It passed because Harry Reid managed something that seemed almost unthinkable: he held every single Senate Democrat — 60 of them, at least at the crucial moment — together to vote for a sprawling, unpopular bill that raised taxes, cut Medicare spending, and insured tens of millions of Americans.
Many political commentators speak with awe at the job Mitch McConnell did in 2009 and 2010 uniting the Senate's 40 (and, later, 41) Republicans in opposition to President Obama's agenda. And it was an impressive show of party unity. But it was easier than the job Reid had: uniting 60 (and, after Scott Brown's election, 59) senators in favor of difficult, often unpopular bills with distinct tradeoffs. And yet for all the GOP's vaunted party discipline, Senate Democrats actually voted more in lockstep than Senate Republicans.
Reid, who announced his retirement on Friday, deserves credit for much of the legislative legacy that will be attributed to Obama.
This chart comes from Congressional Quarterly, and it measures party unity, which is "the frequency with which [senators] vote with their party, on occasions when a majority of Republicans oppose a majority of Democrats." The takeaway here is that in 2009 and 2010 — so, the period in which the vast bulk of Obama's legislative accomplishments passed — Senate Democrats were actually more unified than Senate Republicans, despite the fact that there were more of them, and they were doing the divisive work of legislating rather than simply opposing:
This was an extraordinary accomplishment by Reid, and it speaks to the fact that what we call Obama's legacy is just as much Reid's legacy. If Obama had pushed his health-care bill but five Senate Democrats had defected, there would be no Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — which is to say, there would be no Obamacare.
And given Obama's famously cool relationship with Senate Democrats, this really is Reid's work. Get a Senate Democrat talking long enough and he'll inevitably start complaining about some snub by the White House, or some dismissive response from the president, or the fact that Obama just doesn't spend much time talking with him. Obama might have served in the Senate, but he got out as quickly as he could. Obama wasn't playing Senate majority leader from the Oval Office, as Lyndon Johnson once did and as Bill Clinton certainly tried to do. He left that job to Reid.
Senate Democrats' 60-vote majority, for that matter, wasn't something Reid just lucked into. He made some controversial, behind-the-scenes moves that made the Democrats' temporary 60-vote majority possible.
In the 2008 election, Joe Lieberman endorsed John McCain for president. Democrats already loathed Lieberman for his unflinching advocacy of the Iraq War. For many, this was the last straw. They wanted Lieberman kicked out of the caucus, or at least stripped of his committee chairmanship. Reid refused. He kept Lieberman in the fold and, in return, Lieberman provided the crucial 60th vote for much of Obama's agenda.
Similarly, Democrats didn't begin 2009 with 60 senators. But Republican Senator Arlen Specter quickly realized he was facing a conservative primary challenge he probably wouldn't survive. He thought he had a better chance keeping his seat as a Democrat — and so he decided he would become a Democrat. But he needed an assurance first: he went to Reid and asked to be given the level of seniority he would have accrued if he had been elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 1980. In his memoir, Specter recalled Reid's response: "Arlen, you got it."
(This wasn't the first time, by the way, that Reid helped bring a Republican senator into the Democratic caucus. In 2001, he got Jim Jeffords to switch sides, and thus gave Democrats the majority, by personally stepping down as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee so Jeffords could lead the committee as a Democrat.)
In the first two years of Obama's presidency, Reid's job was harder than even Pelosi's. House Democrats had a 17-seat margin through much of this period, meaning Pelosi could give at least a few of her members a pass on any given bill. Reid usually couldn't. He either held his whole caucus together — a caucus that ranged from Nebraska's Ben Nelson, who would face reelection in a state where Obama only won 41 percent of the vote, to Vermont's Bernie Sanders — or Obama's agenda would fall to a Republican filibuster.
When historians look back at Obama's presidency, they'll record a slew of legislative accomplishments. There was the stimulus, and Obamacare, and the TARP extension, and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms. There was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Serve America Act for community service, and the expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program. Obama signed new anti-tobacco regulations into law, reformed student loans, ratified the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, and ended "don't ask, don't tell" in the armed forces.
These laws — love them or hate them — are still reverberating through the economy today. They are Obama's legacy. But they all passed between 2009 and 2010, and they only passed because Reid was able to do something that sounded impossible: hold 60 Democrats together on painful vote after painful vote. This legacy is his just as much as it is Obama's.