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Good Cop, Bad Cop Routine Gets A Result For Obama And Reid

President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., shared the same goals but had notable stylistic differences in their approaches to the fiscal fight.
Carolyn Kaster
President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., shared the same goals but had notable stylistic differences in their approaches to the fiscal fight.

Since the start of the fiscal standoff that led to a government shutdown and a flirtation with a historic debt default, Democrats have been led by the tag team of President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

At times, their tactics resembled the good cop, bad cop routine where one officer offers the suspect a cup of coffee and the other smacks it from the suspect's lips. Reid, of course, is the smacker.

Obama played the good cop, inviting all 232 members of the House Republican Conference to the White House so they could just sit down and reason together. (GOP leadership ended up paring that list way back to just the leaders.)

And Obama hasn't publicly gone to great lengths to undermine Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. About the roughest thing Obama has said about Boehner and House Republicans overall is that they are being overly influenced by "extremists" in the conference.

Reid, by contrast, has very publicly — and repeatedly — branded the House GOP's Tea Party wing as "anarchists." He's also called them "wacky" and "weird." Reid later conceded to CNN's Dana Bash that perhaps he overstepped with "weird." But he would keep throwing around the term anarchists.

The Nevada Democrat, who will never be accused of subtlety, has also repeatedly thrown Boehner under the bus. First, he alleged that Boehner had reneged on a deal for legislation to keep the government open without any attached policy riders.

Then Reid's office leaked emails that arguably made Boehner look hypocritical. The emails between his office and the speaker's office seemed to show that Boehner worked behind the scenes to ensure that members of Congress and their staffs got an employer contribution to health care — a provision that the GOP conference later opposed and made an issue in the fiscal fight.

None of this is to suggest that Obama and Reid, while stylistically different, have varied on ultimate goals. Indeed, most observers have noted how much Democrats, who once were known for disunity, have stuck together in recent weeks.

"The entire Democratic Party said 'enough is enough,' " said William Galston, a scholar with the center-left Brookings Institution who was a Clinton White House policy adviser. "The White House and the congressional Democrats decided pretty early on not to give any appreciable ground, and they were fortified" by the sense that the Tea Party strategy would only continue if Democrats made significant concessions as they had in past fiscal fights.

In the battles surrounding the fiscal cliff in 2012 and the debt ceiling in 2011, it was Vice President Biden, not Reid, who played a central role in getting deals done.

But Biden was viewed by many Democrats, including Reid, as having given away too much in the fiscal cliff deal — especially by agreeing to make permanent the Bush tax cuts for more high-income taxpayers than Obama had originally proposed.

This time it was Reid, not Biden, at the table in the end. And he appeared to get results Wednesday. Reid and Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, announced a bipartisan agreement to end — for now at least — the shutdown and debt ceiling impasse. House Republicans got little of what they demanded when the fight started.

Asked what Reid's contribution to the Obama-Reid tandem was, Rodell Mollineau, president of American Bridge political action committee and a former senior aide to Reid, told me: "Sen. Reid is a tactician. He is a master of the Senate and its workings. ...

"Also, Sen. Reid can be very blunt, both in the way he speaks and the way he does his work," Mollineau said. "And while that might not always come out publicly as him being a great orator, I think it makes him a very effective legislator and I think there are many people in the Senate who appreciate his bluntness." Reid is a legislative workhorse who gets results like the economic stimulus and the Affordable Care Act.

For his part, Obama offered the more diplomatic approach, Mollineau said.

"And while sometimes that can be frustrating to Democratic insiders, congressmen, senators ... I think it has served the president well in certain cases because he's been able to make a case to the American people that he's the one being reasonable, he's the one being rational."

And for those frustrated Democrats who wanted to see more belligerence from their side, there was always Reid.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.