LAS VEGAS — Harry Reid is done with Iowa.
The former Senate majority leader, who remains a powerful force in the Democratic Party, led off a lengthy interview with VICE News by declaring the end of the Iowa caucuses.
“Iowa has forfeited its chance to be number one. I don't think that'll happen anymore,” Reid said, slamming that state, as well as New Hampshire, for their lack of diversity and pitching his home state of Nevada to replace them at the front of the pack.
“Since the debacle in Iowa, [pundits] have been talking about Nevada should be the first state. Why? Because we’re a state that’s heavily diverse,” he said. “It’s really a state that represents what the country is all about. So I think that Iowa really was an embarrassment to everybody.”
Nevada is the next state to vote in the 2020 primaries — its caucuses are on Feb. 22. And in spite of his retirement and significant health issues, 80-year-old Reid remains the most powerful Democrat in the state and one of the most powerful nationally. What he says and does matters a lot to the presidential race over the next 10 days and beyond.
Sitting in his office at the Bellagio Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, Reid sounded a lot healthier than he’d seemed the last time he talked to VICE News — an interview where he trashed Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All plan and knocked some Democratic candidates’ more uncompromisingly liberal immigration positions.
Reid is still undergoing chemotherapy for the pancreatic cancer he’s been fighting for more than a year — his fedora covered a bald pate from the chemo. And multiple back surgeries have limited his mobility. But Reid has arranged his chemo schedule so he doesn’t have any treatments between now and the caucuses. And he’s still quite involved in the 2020 race.
The former Senate leader told VICE News that he’d been on the phone with Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Elizabeth Warren in “the last few days” and last talked directly with Joe Biden about two weeks ago. While he hadn’t talked to Sanders in “several weeks,” Reid said he was in regular contact with Sanders’ campaign manager Faiz Shakir — one of the many former Reid staffers working on the 2020 presidential campaigns.
With the Nevada caucuses so close, Reid was a bit more circumspect than usual. He said he’s made up his mind who he’d vote for in the caucuses but plans to vote early so no one knows who he backed. He won’t publicly endorse anyone until after the caucuses, and he might wait until after that. But he had plenty of thoughts on the race — from the rise of Michael Bloomberg to Democrats’ chances in the fall to whether Nevada can avoid Iowa’s fate. Here’s what he had to say.
Harry on Bloomberg
Reid brought up former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg unprompted when we asked where things stood in Nevada — an interesting reaction considering that Bloomberg isn’t even competing in the first four primary and caucus states.
“He has a plan, that’s for sure,” Reid said. “You have to recognize, the man — he really was a good mayor of a huge, huge, city, the largest city in America. I like him, I’ve always liked him. Nobody’s done more on guns and climate than he has. No one.”
But Reid, who famously trolled Mitt Romney for months over not releasing his tax returns by falsely suggesting that Romney hadn’t paid any taxes in a decade, said Bloomberg should put his tax returns out as well. Bloomberg has faced increasing calls to do so since he jumped into the presidential race.
“I believe going back to Eisenhower and Truman, they showed us their taxes, and the only one that hasn't is Trump. So I think tax returns are something that's part of the ballgame,” Reid said. “Any presidential wannabe should do it.”
Is Joe Biden done?
“It’s too early to discount Joe,” Reid said Tuesday afternoon, before it was clear exactly how badly Biden would do in New Hampshire, arguing that things could change for Biden once the map turned to more diverse states. “The campaign for Joe Biden is not over yet. And we have such a false negative — Iowa and New Hampshire. That's unfair.”
Reid said whoever the nominee is would need to do well with nonwhite voters, most of whom haven’t voted yet. That includes Buttigieg and Klobuchar, who did well in New Hampshire but have so far struggled to make inroads with African-Americans and Hispanics, as well as Bloomberg, who has risen in national polls across all demographics based on his big spending but faces serious questions about his strident support of a controversial “stop and frisk” policy that was loathed by most African-Americans in his city.
“No one will get the nomination unless they have satisfied the diversity of our country,” Reid said.
Buttigieg is “a very impressive man, as quick on his feet as anyone I’ve ever seen,” Reid said, adding if he, Klobuchar or Bloomberg is going to win, they’ll need to do well with nonwhite voters.
What impact will impeachment have on 2020?
Reid said Trump’s regularly “crazy” behavior had inured Americans to what he did in Ukraine, like an alcoholic relative.
“When your uncle who gets drunk all the time gets drunk again, it's no news at all,” he said. "I think that's what we're all faced with.” Reid said the impeachment’s focus on one “lie, exaggeration, falsehood after another" was a problem. "[Trump's] such an uncle who’s in trouble all the time that people kind of accept it. ‘What do we expect?’ That’s the way the impeachment was.”
But will the result embolden Trump to do other things of questionable legality to further his reelection chances — or stand by as Russia or other countries do it for him?
“They [Russia] certainly will try. And I don't know, with him being president, where we get the tools to do any better than we did last time. I hope so, but I don't know,” Reid said.
What about the Democratic National Committee?
The DNC has been outraised by the Republican National Committee by a huge margin over the past few years. And, fairly or not, the DNC took some of the blame for Iowa’s collapse. Reid defended DNC Chairman Tom Perez — but admitted he was concerned about whether the party would be ready for the general election.
“I think the world of Tom Perez,” Reid said. But what about the donors who are hesitant to give to the DNC after 2020? “I'm concerned. But my message to anyone who asks, and even if they don't ask, I’ll tell them: It's unfair to focus on Iowa, which was a debacle.”
So, which Democrat beats Trump?
“Well, I think the chances of beating Trump are at least 60-40,” Reid said before describing those odd as “maybe a little generous” to Democrats. He praised the candidates for so far avoiding any overly damaging attacks — with the implicit warning that things needed to stay that way to beat Trump.
“Any one of our Democratic aspirants can beat him,” Reid said. “But it's not going to be just because we want to beat him. It has to be a well-coordinated campaign where there’s unity. And right now that's one of the things that has been so impressive. With all the candidates we've had, there has been little backbiting and picking on each other.”
Cover: Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sits at his desk in the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada on Feb. 11, 2020. (Photo: Cameron Joseph/VICE News)