By Alexander Bolton - 08/04/12 10:00 AM EDT
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) bashing of Mitt Romney has sparked a debate over whether he has gone too far, but Democrats are happy to cheer him on.
Reid has adopted the role of attack dog with relish, repeatedly bashing Romney for his wealth and record as CEO of Bain Capital.
It’s an unusual brawl from the standpoint that congressional leaders usually moderate their rhetoric and also because he and Romney are two of the highest profile Mormons in national politics.
“I do think that Harry is a fearless leader,” said former Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.). “I think Nancy is totally focused now on raising the money and working her base to make her party competitive in the face of super-PACs. Unfortunately people think of her as a polarizing figure and she’s probably not doing anything to aid or abet this [perception].”
It’s a reprise of Reid’s tactics in the 2008 election, when he called Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the GOP nominee, “erratic” and declared he did not have the temperament to be president.
Reid famously announced that year he could not stand McCain, a long-time colleague. It was a shocking statement in the clubby Senate.
Democrats say they are grateful to have a leader who is playing tough with Republicans while admitting it may color Reid’s reputation in the future.
Republicans are fuming over Reid’s rhetoric, which has been unusually harsh for a congressional leader. They say it is a breach of Senate decorum.
Independent political experts say Reid has pushed the envelope but note that Republicans deserve blame as well for escalating partisan tensions.
Reid this week claimed Romney did not pay federal taxes for ten years. He said he was informed by a Bain investor who called his office.
Reid went further to slam Romney for only releasing one year of tax returns, drawing a contrast with Romney’s father, George, who released 12 years of returns while running for president in 1968.
“His poor father must be so embarrassed about his son,” Reid told The Huffington Post.
The statement drew an angry rebuke from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who said, “the majority leader has more important things to do than use the Senate as a forum for his baseless accusations.
“Frankly, it’s beneath the dignity of his office,” he added.
The scolding did not phase Reid. He sent out a fundraising e-mail late Friday with the subject line, "I'm not backing down".
"I'm not backing down because Mitt Romney is hiding something — and the American people deserve to know what it is," he wrote.
Jon Ralston, a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun, who has covered Reid since 1986, said there is a calculated political agenda behind the seemingly rash statements.
“I’m not sure what that line is for him. He keeps moving it further and further,” Ralston said when asked whether Reid crossed the line of propriety. “There are two sides to Reid. He says some intemperate things and he’s not very polished with the media. Then there’s the other side of Reid that is incredibly calculating. He has a goal in mind and he’s sticking fast to it.”
Reid fired another salvo at Romney Friday, as the GOP candidate headed to Reno to attend several fundraisers.
"Today, the most secretive presidential candidate since Richard Nixon is coming to Nevada, asking to be elected president. Forget about president - Mitt Romney couldn't get confirmed as a cabinet secretary,” he said. “In short, Romney's message to Nevadans is this: he won't release his taxes, but he wants to raise yours.”
Reid has torched Romney with increasing frequency in recent weeks.
Last month he accused Senate Republicans of blocking a bill that eliminated tax breaks for companies that outsource operations to defend Romney, whom he said “made a fortune by shipping jobs overseas”.
Reid also declared the Senate would not confirm Romney for the job of dogcatcher because he has shared little of his tax information.Democrats applaud Reid’s tough talk.
“It’s absolutely constructive and a very important role not only for getting Obama’s back but also for America,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Progressive Congress. “What frustrates me is Reid seems to be the only one. I’d like to see more senators, more surrogates and more Republicans call out Romney for not doing what other candidates have done, release their tax returns. Thank God for Harry Reid.”
Chamberlain acknowledged that voters have grown frustrated with the partisanship of the political arena but argued they like fighters.
“Does it backfire? Maybe with a tiny portion of the electorate,” he said.
GOP strategists, however, say Reid’s attack will backfire unless he can prove that Romney has avoided paying taxes for years.
“This could definitely boomerang on Reid because he’s going to eventually have to back it up with facts,” said Ron Bonjean, a former GOP leadership aide in the Senate and House. “Reid is going to have to prove it to the public. Without that, he loses massive credibility among his peers for going after Romney in this fashion.”
Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Republicans cannot blame Reid because they did not condemn attacks against Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) war record during the 2004 presidential campaign.
“Mitch McConnell and the Republican crowd weren’t saying the Republican attack on John Kerry was beyond the pale. If that’s not offside, this isn’t offside,” he said. “For years Democrats were criticized for not being tough enough and when they get tough they get criticized for being over the line.”
Schaller said there’s a risk that Reid may come out of the election looking “as more of a loudmouth” but added “he’s helping his president.” He speculated that Obama’s political advisors have signed off on the attacks.
David Di Martino, a Democratic strategist, said Reid’s statements could stain him as a hyper partisan but added it’s not a major concern.
“There’s always a danger in that. But this is a political industry and people expect a certain level of politics to be part of the election season. It’s a low risk,” he said.
“I think there are people who are cheering him on because Romney is getting away with not releasing his taxes. The only way to put an end to the rumors is for Romney to release his tax returns,” he added.