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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

HARRY REID'S CONTROL ISSUES: Sen. Harry Reid is in the grip of powerful forces beyond his control. Depending on what he reads in the newspaper tomorrow morning, Reid may go berserk. This is serious, because the future of the Supreme Court is at stake. Let’s take it from the top. Sen. Reid says he was delighted to be asked to advise the president in selecting a replacement for Justice O'Connor. But that was only a first step. President Bush must run the names of potential high court nominees past the Democrats. Otherwise, we’re talking serious political problems for the White House. Last week Reid left the White House with a warning: "I don't want to wake up in the morning and see a name in the paper." Clear implication: If he wakes up to find the wrong name in the paper, the senator wouldn’t be responsible for his actions. If Bush's problems are political, Reid's appear to be clinical. The man's very autonomy is now contingent upon what he reads in the paper. Cause-effect. Or more accurately: stimulus-response. Yes, it’s true — behaviorism is back. You may recall from Psychology 101 the chief premise of the behaviorist school of human nature: Humans are biologically "wired" so that a certain stimulus will produce a specific response. Not satisfied to say humans are merely influenced by their environments, hardcore behaviorists claimed that we’re nothing but stimulus-response machines. Over time, the explanatory power of this theory fell out of favor as it became clear that behaviorist models pay too little heed to the mind's capacity to learn. For instance, a rat can shift its behavior to respond to changes in the layout of a maze it had previously mastered through reinforcements. This fact suggests there may be hope for Sen. Reid, whose capacity for freely-chosen action is obviously at peril. Hear his thinly-veiled cry for help: "As to whether or not there's a knockdown, drag-out fight on this is up to the president.” The stakes are high indeed — but what can be done? I believe we must look to the rats. Based on early experiments with rats and other animals, behaviorists have shown great success in reconditioning troubled patients through a therapeutic method called “systematic desensitization.” This treatment helps patients overcome anxieties by learning to relax in the presence of stimuli that once made them intolerably nervous and afraid. As patients learn to relax in the presence of these stimuli, stronger anxiety-arousing stimuli are added until patients no longer experience anxiety in the presence of the original objects that caused them to seek help. I’m sure you can see where I’m headed. Let the therapy begin before the presses roll. Here’s my prescription. Let Reid be invited to sit comfortably and focus on his breathing. The therapist will invite Reid to simply consider — on a purely hypothetical basis — certain ideas that Reid might find threatening if asked to believe on a literal basis. Here’s one such idea: “The framers of the Constitution weren’t kidding when they granted the president exclusive power to nominate and the Senate sole power to confirm.” Reid won’t be asked to actually sign on to this apparently deranged notion. The skilled therapist will simply invite the senator to ponder the idea for, say, ten seconds (as Reid’s heart and breathing rates are closely monitored). Let the practice period be extended by ten-second increments, until Reid can abide the speculative thesis for longer periods without hyperventilating. It must be acknowledged that systematic desensitization can be a challenging regime. For instance, during the course of treatment Reid may experience despair when he hits bottom with the inevitable recognition that any decision to launch a "knock-down, drag-out fight" against the president's constitutional prerogatives would be his own decision. Even so, chances are better than even that Harry Reid will find himself able to read his Wednesday newspaper free of catastrophic retaliatory fantasies. After all, Reid has already admitted his problems with self-control — a crucial first step toward recovery. And if the therapy goes really well, who knows? By the opening gavel of the Senate’s confirmation hearings, Reid might even find himself an enthusiastic exponent of Stanley Fish’s idea that “the only coherent answer to the question ‘What does the Constitution mean?’ is that the Constitution means what its authors intended it to mean.” Key word: might— as in “not certain.” We simply can’t say for sure whether Reid will rise to that level of functioning. It's always dicey to extrapolate across species, comparing cunning rodents to Senate obstructionists. But if there’s anything to the evolutionary idea of descent from common ancestors, Harry Reid has solid grounds for hope.