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July 24, 2014

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Letter from Washington:

McCain, Reid find political currency in mutual attacks

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

John McCain

John McCain

Sun Topics

Tonight is the final performance of “The Rivalry,” a play that takes audiences at the historic Ford’s Theater on an itinerant journey through the Lincoln-Douglas senatorial debates that defined national politics in the 1858 midterm election.

The Presidents Day weekend show is a clever and timely reminder that politics is about choices that shape history. Then, as now, divisive politics polarized the nation, and men faced one another with the politician’s arsenal of wit, facts and barbs.

Take the fiery relationship between two neighboring senators, Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada.

Flinty personalities both, the 70-somethings easily hurl arrows at each other between periods of apparent peace.

Their politics differ, no doubt — McCain the former Republican nominee for president; Reid, the majority leader who is working to usher President Barack Obama’s agenda through the Senate.

But as both face difficult re-elections this year, they can find currency in attacking each other as they make the case to keep their jobs.

Here is Reid recently on McCain’s return to senatorial life after the 2008 campaign: “John is a great name-caller. The election’s over. He should leave Barack Obama alone and join with us to do good things for the country.”

McCain shot back by taunting Reid over his unpopularity at home: “I think the people of Nevada are giving him their response.”

McCain can clearly cash in politically on any jabs at Reid. Establishment Washington is unpopular these days. What Republican incumbent would shy from badgering the party in power?

“It’s not just McCain, it’s every Republican going after Reid,” one GOP aide said.

McCain faces a likely primary challenge from J.D. Hayworth, a former Republican congressman who was a conservative radio commentator until recently.

McCain has always had an uneasy relationship with the right, which has never been convinced he was one of them. And the regular attacks on Reid could shore up McCain’s conservative credentials.

McCain routinely targets Reid on the Senate floor, hitting close to home: He called the president’s decision to zero out funding for a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain while supporting the development of new nuclear power plants “really an insult to one’s intelligence.” McCain personally encouraged Nevada’s Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki to enter the race to unseat Reid. (Krolicki declined.)

What Reid gets from these exchanges, aside from sharpening his sparring skills, is less clear.

Reid has made no secret of his disdain for McCain’s brusque style and the Arizonan’s stances on Yucca, sports betting and other issues that run counter to what Reid thinks are in Nevada’s interests. “I can’t stand John McCain,” he said in 2008.

It may seem an odd complaint from the Nevadan also known for impolitic frankness. But Reid is not seen as hotheaded. During the presidential campaign, Reid said McCain “doesn’t have the temperament to be president.”

After the election, Reid called McCain to bury the hatchet. It didn’t stay buried.

Attacking McCain could help rally Democrats to Reid’s re-election. McCain lost to Obama in a sweep unseen by a Democrat in Nevada since FDR. Yet independent voters are moving away from the party.

“I don’t know what good it does Reid,” the Republican aide said.

As far as rivalries go, this one seems more about disdain than competition. Neither man is trying to best the other for a new crown. Neither wants to be in the other’s place. Both are just old adversaries, fighting to keep their jobs.

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