Frank Rich on the National Circus: Harry Reid Is No Joe McCarthy

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Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Last week, Harry Reid claimed on the Senate floor that Mitt Romney hadn't paid any taxes for ten years. The head of the RNC called Reid a "dirty liar." What's Reid trying to do here?
It’s entirely possible that Reid’s incendiary charge has nothing to back it up but (at best) an unsubstantiated rumor. That’s why the GOP is likening him to Joe McCarthy. But there are two important distinctions between Reid and McCarthy. (1) Reid isn’t accusing Romney of being a traitor or even of breaking the law; he’s accusing him of paying no taxes, which can be perfectly legal for the super-rich if loopholes and ingenious accounting schemes align in their favor. (2) While McCarthy’s victims couldn’t empirically and instantly prove that they were not subversives, Romney can easily call Reid’s bluff and prove that he did pay taxes by releasing his tax returns. So if Romney releases his returns, which many Republicans feel he should do anyway as a matter of transparency and good politics, and it turns out Reid is indeed a dirty liar, end of story. Republicans in the Senate can then turn the heat on the Democrats, moving to censure Reid much as McCarthy’s Senate peers ultimately censured him.

How likely is it that Reid's gambit is going to pay off for the Democrats?
It already is. According to the latest Times swing-state poll, about half the voters already believe that Romney must release more tax returns. The longer Romney refuses, and the more he and his surrogates whine about Reid, the longer the issue stays center stage and the more that poll number is likely to go up. And Republicans know it too — Reid seems to be driving them insane. On ABC’s This Week last Sunday, Ann Coulter was so desperate to rationalize Romney’s failure to release his tax returns that she compared him favorably to Bill Clinton, whose refusal (in 1992) to release his medical records, she said, might have been an attempt to cover up drug addiction. With Romney defenders like Coulter, the Democrats can just sit back and enjoy the show.

Should Reid release his own tax returns to up the ante?
That would be a brilliant move, actually. Though no one gives a damn about Reid’s taxes — he isn’t running for president, he isn’t even going to run for reelection to the Senate — a Reid tax return release would put Romney in an even more untenable position and the ensuing hubbub would give the Romney tax problem even more legs. 

Drudge Report published an exclusive yesterday that President Obama said Romney wants to pick David Petraeus as his VP. Petraeus reiterated again his Sherman-esque pledge not to seek elective office. Do you think this was just Drudge blowing smoke? Or did someone have an agenda with this leak? (Also, how would Obama know whom Romney is going to select for his VP?) 
I suspect Drudge’s sourcing of this “scoop” was roughly as solid as Reid’s sourcing for Romney’s tax history. Petraeus has already shot it down. Clearly the agenda here — that of the Romney camp, known for its close synergy with Drudge — is to keep people believing that some sexy surprise might yet imbue Mitt’s static campaign with at least a trace of drama, let alone excitement. It’s like the bogus Condi-as-veep balloon the Romney camp floated a few weeks ago. No one should be surprised if Clint Eastwood rumors surface next. 

Last week in Texas, tea-party favorite Ted Cruz trounced Rick Perry–endorsed David Dewhurst in the GOP senate primary. A lot of pundits saw this as confirmation that the tea party is still very much alive and well. Do you think that's true?
All the journalistic talk that the tea party was dead or in remission, some of it inspired by polls showing a waning of tea party popularity, has always been wrong. The radical-right tea party has co-opted the GOP, enforces its ideological bent, and in each internecine battle (of which the Texas primary is only the latest) is consolidating its control. The only thing about the tea party that has changed is its brand: It is now the Republican party. 

Do you expect all the tea-party noise to play into Romney's VP selection?
The tea party — the Republican base, that is — is a real problem for Romney. They are not his kind of people, and they loathe him and the now-obsolete establishment Republicanism he once stood for. At best they tolerate him as a necessary inconvenience, a sort of impotent prince regent, who will serve as a malleable front man for their agenda if he somehow gets into the White House. Meanwhile, he needs to flatter them in any way possible, however disingenuously, because he needs them to turn out in November. But unless he picks a right-wing firebrand for VP,  they will be more enervated than energized. So if he thinks he can win them over with a Pawlenty or Portman, he’s kidding himself. But as we’ve seen so far, Romney is so isolated in his own bubble his capacity for kidding himself knows few bounds.

And lastly on the veepstakes, you're something of an expert on the vice-presidency as one of the producers of HBO's Veep. Any advice you'd give Mitt on his selection based on your experience with Selena Meyer?
Only that if Romney picked Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the GOP might have an unexpected crack at carrying California. But I seriously doubt she would accept the nod, and besides, playing Selena Meyer is a better job than actually presiding over the Senate of Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell.

Two great cultural observers, art critic Robert Hughes and New York's first film critic, Judith Crist, died this week. Could they have had the same career paths if they were coming up today?
This has been a sad week when it comes to losses in our cultural ranks: the Lincoln Center titan Martin Segal, the composer Marvin Hamlisch, the playwright Mark O’Donnell, as well as Bob and Judy, both of whom I knew in my early days as a film critic when I was at Time magazine (where Bob was then art critic) in the late seventies. That was the last era when print cultural critics had such clout — not just Hughes and Crist, but Pauline Kael at The New Yorker, Clive Barnes, Walter Kerr, Vincent Canby and Hilton Kramer at the Times, among others. The fractionalization of news media in the digital age has ended all that without diminishing the supply of good critics. But let me just add one personal point about Bob Hughes. He was this larger-than-life figure, Falstaffian (without the girth) in his personal and literary style, wildly arrogant, hilariously witty, contemptuous of all authority (including at Time), and fearless. When we cohabited a corridor in the Time-Life Building, I was a fairly green kid, but he was never less than encouraging to me, when he certainly had no obligation to even acknowledge my presence. As a writer, he taught me a lot about art (among other subjects), but he taught me even more about what it is to be a generous colleague in real life. I still remember him turning up in the office the morning after my first son was born — and Bob was no morning person — with a bottle of Champagne in hand. We drank every drop.