It’s not every day you see a powerful politician waging an unapologetic public war against a couple of private citizens. But Harry Reid is no ordinary politician, and the Koch brothers are no ordinary men.
The Democratic Senate majority leader is using his bully pulpit to pick an increasingly acrimonious fight with the billionaire oil tycoons, seizing on every opportunity he gets — and creating new ones — to throw everything but the kitchen sink at them. In recent weeks he has called them “un-American” plutocrats who “have no conscience and are willing to lie” in order to “rig the system” against the middle class. He has also accused them of bribing foreign governments in order to expand their energy empire.
“I’ve been told by lots of people, ‘Don’t pick a fight. They’re wealthy. They’re very vengeful.’ But without sounding too melodramatic, if not me, then who?” Reid told reporters in his Capitol office on Thursday. “I am after the two [Koch] brothers. They are two people who are trying to buy America. They have the money to do it.”
So, what’s really driving the Nevada Democrat’s fight? The brothers, Charles and David, are reportedly worth a stunning $36 billion each, and they’re pouring millions into an all-out effort to dismantle Reid’s Democratic majority in the upcoming congressional elections. The GOP has a real chance of winning the majority this November, and it helps them to have Koch-funded ads routinely flooding the airwaves and shredding Democratic priorities.
“[Reid] is smart enough to know that in politics that you need an enemy to draw out distinctions,” said Jim Manley, Reid’s former top spokesman through 2010. “For instance, in his time in the Senate he has seen the Republicans try to demonize people like Leader [Nancy] Pelosi in order to have a foil to run against — and before her it was Senator [Ted] Kennedy.”
There’s no better foil than the Kochs, who as Reid puts it, “stand for everything I don’t.” Whether it’s Obamacare, tax policy or climate change, Democrats have no perceivable common ground with the kings of the Koch empire. The brothers are also emblematic of the startling — and widening — income disparity between the rich and poor, which progressives are increasingly focused on bridging. Other than ginning up the core liberal base, it’s not clear if Reid’s war will have much of an impact. But there’s no real downside for him.
“There is nothing for any Democratic politician to lose in waging battle against the Koch brothers,” Manley said. “And the idea that they don’t like getting called out for trying to buy elections is a joke.”
Reid appears to be getting under the Koch brothers’ skin. They’ve deployed their activist group, Americans For Prosperity, to defend their anti-Obamacare ads and hit back at the majority leader with comparably harsh rhetoric.
“Americans know better than to take lessons in civic virtue from Senator Reid, a career politician who has spent decades in Congress, and now descends from his Ritz Carleton penthouse to mislead Americans,” the group’s spokesman, Levi Russell, said in a statement this week. “Ironically, David and Charles create more jobs, more prosperity, and more well-being for Americans in a single year than Senator Reid and his big government policies will in a lifetime.”
Republicans, too, have leaped to the Koch brothers’ defense. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) this week accused Reid of attempting to “demonize people for exercising their constitutional rights.” At the conservative CPAC conference on Thursday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) demanded that the Democrat “get back to work and stop picking on great Americans,” pointedly referring to the Kochs. This week, Senate Democrats’ election arm spun those defenses into a campaign under the banner, “Republicans are addicted to Koch” — borrowing a line from Reid, which he said his wife originally came up with.
Despite his soft-spoken demeanor, Reid has a penchant for personal insults, and relishes in confrontation with people he dislikes. In recent weeks he hasn’t missed an opportunity to strike at the Kochs. He has used his Senate floor speeches to lob attacks at them. He has tossed insults at them, unprompted, at his Capitol press conference. He even seized on a Congressional Budget Office report about the minimum wage to launch an attack on the two brothers, even though it had nothing to do with them.
He says he doesn’t fear retribution from the ruthless billionaires.
“I wish they’d hire some private detective to go after me. What a boring time they’d have,” Reid said. “I am one of the most boring people in the world. So I don’t care. I don’t care about being investigated by the best.”