Can a teetotaling Mormon from a busted mining town in Nevada lead Democrats to the Promised Land of national power? This much is certain: Democrats rallied behind Harry Reid in the hope that he can take them through purgatory -- or is it hell? -- as minority leader of the 44-member Democratic caucus in the U.S. Senate.
Many doubted at first that a man with his mild demeanor had the right stuff to represent underdog Democrats at their nadir. I think Reid has what it takes.
First, he's an insider, known as one of the best players in the inside game of the Senate, where deals are made in the cloakroom and not on the floor. This means Reid will help shape the issues that shape the future of Democrats.
Second, Reid's highest personal ambition is winning back the Senate for the Democrats and then becoming majority leader. This means he will cultivate and advance new leaders for the party.
Finally -- and as important as the others but little noticed in the national puzzlement over how Reid got to where he is -- he understands the West. The election on Nov. 2 indicated that the key to the Democratic Party's future nationally is in the West. The signs are hopeful. Western Democrats did surprisingly well, even though the states went for Bush.
How did Reid end up in charge of a party most people see as coastal and liberal? His hard-luck biography says a lot. His father, a prospector and miner in Searchlight, Nev., committed suicide when Reid was a young man. To get a better education, Reid hitchhiked 40 miles each week to go to high school in Henderson, near Las Vegas.
After college, he worked his way through law school as a Capitol Hill cop in Washington, D.C. Back in Nevada, he became head of the state gaming commission and took on the mob in the casino industry. Reid is not a big man, but he was a boxer in high school. He's a scrapper who puts up a good fight.
Reid grew up in a backwater of the old West but came of age politically in a new West. The region was transformed after World War II by military spending, the interstate highway system, the rise of tourism and the growth of its metropolitan cities. Those forces came together to make this the fastest-growing region in the country.
Las Vegas, where Reid focused his political career, has been caught up in this maelstrom of change. But Reid has also had to represent the rest of Nevada as well: the mining towns, ranches and farms and Indian reservations. He has learned to make important compromises on mining, water, grazing, wilderness and with Native American tribes. What is most interesting about his compromises is that they aren't haphazard. They flow out of his vision of the future.
In his speeches and in personal interactions, Reid tells one story over and over. In it, he is taking his wife to see a spring hidden among the Joshua trees in the desert west of Searchlight, where he went as a boy to escape his life. They find the spring, but it has been trashed. Reid is heartbroken: It is one beautiful thing from his past that he wanted to share with his wife in the present. This is one of the few personal stories you will hear from this reticent man. The other involves the suicide of his father, which he only recently began to talk about.
What do the stories signify? They tell him and his listeners that the old ways have got to change. These stories drive him to find a way out of the dead-end dilemma of the old West, which sees compromise as unmanly.
What might Reid's leadership of the Senate minority mean for the West? He will do everything possible to stop the proposed nuclear dump at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. And if the Senate minority leader can do one thing, it is to clog up the system and delay action. Unlike the House of Representatives, the majority in the Senate cannot ride roughshod over the minority.
More important for the nation, Reid will also be able to shape the legislative agenda behind the scenes. If he can shape the Democratic agenda, he might succeed in moving the party toward the center -- and toward the West.
Jon Christensen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He spent 12 years as journalist in Nevada and is currently on a fellowship in history at Stanford University.