Columnist Jon Ralston: Reid, Ensign vow to play nice

Sat, Dec 9, 2000 (2:06 a.m.)

Jon Ralston, who publishes the Ralston Report, writes a column for the Sun on Sundays and Wednesdays. Ralston can be reached at 870-7997 or through e-mail at [email protected]

Two years ago Harry Reid could not talk about John Ensign without scorn dripping from every word.

He sneered that Ensign was a "vet who also worked in casinos (who) shouldn't be interpreting the Constitution." He derided Ensign as a do-nothing congressman who has "gotten nothing done other than stopping people from reading Playboy in prison." Reid exuded contempt for an opponent he saw as an ambitious upstart who had the temerity to try to defeat a Democratic senator who had ascended close to the pinnacle of his party's ranks in the Club of 100.

For his part, Ensign portrayed Reid as a profligate taxer-and-spender who voted for $433 billion in tax increases during his career. Reid was the epitome of the career politician, an entrenched tool of Democratic Party interests who voted for pay increases. And, Ensign argued, Reid couldn't get much done because he wasn't in the Senate majority.

All of this came to mind as I watched Reid and Ensign paste smiles on their faces last week on Capitol Hill and do their rhetorical embrace for the media. How divine forgiveness can be. Now that Ensign will be his colleague, Reid praises him as a gracious loser in 1998 (even though he and his agents did everything they could to stifle a recount back then) and pointed out that Ensign can work the Republicans in a way that he can't (exactly the opposite of what he argued two years ago). And Ensign offered bouquets about Reid's influence and outreach to Republicans in the upper house -- which goes to counter to the core of his campaign in 1998.

Perhaps, though, we should all shelve our cynicism -- it is the holiday season -- and consider that the Reid-Ensign era actually might give birth to one of the most productive partnerships in Nevada senatorial history. If Reid and Sen. Richard Bryan were the Gold Dust Twins, what moniker shall we conjure up for Reid and Ensign? What unlikely models shall we draw from to capture this Montague and Capulet-like pairing? Why, Ensign and Reid are as unlikely a love affair as Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy, or even Harry Reid and J. Bennett Johnston once were.

The Curious Couple? The Practical Pals? Or perhaps, Beauty and the Beast -- Ensign, the photogenic, charismatic naif who has little idea about life in the upper house paired with Reid, the less-than camera-friendly player who prefers the backroom and who has elevated ruthlessness to an art form.

Actually the two men have more in common than one might think, which will both help and hinder their new marriage of convenience. They are both excellent poseurs -- Reid pretends to be a Republican every six years while Ensign masquerades as a Democrat every time he is on the ballot. But Ensign and Reid also are undisciplined when it comes to dealing with the media -- Ensign often will let his lips get ahead of his head, disgorging incendiary rhetoric, while Reid sometimes just says whatever comes into his head, the comment's basis in reality often hard to discern.

Let's face it, though: For a small state such as Nevada, having a member of each party is much better in the long run. That way, no matter whether the Democrats or the Republicans are in control, the state will have some stroke.

Reid and Ensign are likely to work well together, too, because the senior senator no longer hears Ensign's footsteps, as he did ever since the latter was elected to Congress in 1994. So they can practice two elemental laws of political affinity: No permanent friends and no permanent enemies, as well as holding your friends close and your enemies closer.

Oh, yes, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. That is, as long as Reid and his equally ruthless staff resist the urge to whisper sour somethings about Ensign to the media and the race for credit becomes even nastier than it was between Reid and Bryan. Reid, of course, has more to lose -- if anything goes wrong, he is, after all, the No. 2 Democrat so shouldn't he be able to do almost anything?

There is potential. As I listened to John Ensign last week, heard him talk about working with both sides, developing relationships across the partisan aisle, even with men who would love to bury nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, it finally occurred to me why I thought he sounded like an echo. Then it hit me. I realized who he sounded like. Harry Reid.


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