(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—Everyone wants to be the difference maker in Washington, D.C. John McCain made a career out of playing the moderate Republican whose swing vote was up for grabs so long as the other side made a persuasive policy argument. Positioning yourself as the critical vote on national policy issues is a great way to get on “Meet the Press,” increase your stature back home and maybe even launch yourself into the White House. But the health care reform debate has thrown that conventional wisdom out the window. Being the swing vote on health care has been a one-way ticket to political oblivion. The “curse of the 60th vote” has been cast and it just might change Washington for years to come.
The Obama administration spent its first year in office begging, pleading and cajoling Democratic senators to push through health care reform. Unfortunately, like all forms of coddling, Obama just created spoiled brats out of senators looking to increase their political stature. Once Obama and Majority Leader Harry Reid tipped their hand and admitted that it would take 60 votes in the Senate to pass health care reform, everyone lined up to be that all powerful “60th vote” that would deliver or kill health care.
Most senators who had concerns about the bill kept them to themselves or shared them with the White House behind closed doors. That may be the most sincere and professional way to make policy but it’s not the recipe for increasing your clout in Washington. To be a real power player your vote has to become a public spectacle. You spend weeks as a media darling by teasing talk show hosts about which way you’ll stand on the legislation. “How will Sen. X vote?” becomes the hot topic on every crawl screen for the cable networks. Your constituents, red or blue, are thrilled that it all comes down to you and the White House is at your beck and call. Washington has always worked this way, until “the curse.”
Playing yourself into the all-powerful 60th vote on health care reform has backfired on just about everyone who has made a move into that position, from incumbent senators to those running for office. Wyeth Ruthven, a Washington-based Democratic campaign operative, put it succinctly: “It’s the curse of the 60th senator. The electorate has turned on every senator that has been seen as the decisive 60th vote for health care reform. Blanche Lincoln and Ben Nelson’s approval ratings melted in the spotlight. Coakley’s role as the 60th vote cost her the election. It is the biggest political hot seat in Washington.”
When Blanche Lincoln, D-Ariz., tried to play the conflicted moderate for the cameras her base dropped her, conservatives went after her and now she’s in the race of her life this fall. When Ben Nelson, D-N.E., held up the health care vote until he got a policy bribe for his state he dropped 20 points in the polls and now he’s scrambling to restore his integrity. Joe Lieberman’s, D-Conn., gutless backtracking from his own policy proposals made him the crucial 60th vote and he threatened to trap the health reform bill in the Senate. Nobody bought his contrived hand-wringing about a principled vote on the Sunday talk shows. Voters know a dirty power play when they see one. Lieberman’s numbers have fallen so far in his home state that he’s contemplating not running for re-election. Having claimed three victims already, the “curse of the 60th vote” slowly settled itself upon the special election in Massachusetts. Once Republicans made it clear to voters that a Martha Coakley victory would make her the crucial 60th vote on health care reform, she became the target of everyone’s national frustrations and lost in an upset to Scott Brown.
The only way to lift the curse of the 60th vote was to not play politics and either stand in favor or against the health care bill early. Conservatives like Evan Bayh, D-In., and Jim Webb, D-Va., quietly pledged support early and nothing happened to them. Voters on both sides of this issue are passionate, and the lesson to be learned here is pretty simple. If you have to make a tough political decision; make it early. No one gains political points by being at the center of the most contentious policy debate in 20 years. Even if health care fails, the curse of the 60th vote will still be hovering out there for any future policy battles, and maybe next time senators will learn their lesson faster.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)