Toasting Scott Brown

If Democrats pass health insurance reform this week, they should offer a belated St. Patrick’s Day toast to an unlikely senator: Scott Brown.

It was Brown, after all, who changed the conversation in Washington with his stunning upset in the Massachusetts special election earlier this year.

For the months leading up to that point, the biggest names in congressional news included Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) — the former a symbol of an unpopular state deal cut to win passage of reform; the latter, a sign of Democrats’ failure to secure bipartisan support for the bill.

But for weeks after the special election, the hot topic in D.C. was Scott Brown — the plainspoken candidate who ran an insurgent campaign against Washington politics and had become the Bay State’s first GOP senator in nearly four decades.

Congressional Republicans crowed that Brown’s victory meant health reform was headed for certain defeat. But by forcing Democratic leaders to rework their legislative strategy, the loss of that 60th vote meant the House and Senate legislation — which contained some seemingly intractable differences — wouldn’t cause intra-party bloodshed during the politically dicey conference committee process.

Next up, the insurance industry, seeing its hopes for quietly negotiating concessions behind closed doors were dead, was no longer content to funnel its considerable anti-reform ad dollars through the Chamber of Commerce. Big Insurance took to the airwaves with its own ads — reminding Americans, in the process, how passionate the industry was about killing healthcare.

Then the insurance companies’ motive became clear. Industry giants like Anthem Blue Cross were planning massive hikes to insurance premiums — 39 percent in some places, up to 60 percent in others. In February, annual profit reports showed that Big Insurance raked in a record $12 billion in profits last year — while 2.7 million more Americans lost their private coverage. The narrative was complete.

Brown’s election also changed the mindset of Washington Democrats. With a caucus of exactly 60 members, every senator had become an emperor — with each one laying claim to The Sixtieth Vote. With just 59 ordinary Democratic votes and the new legislative process that spurred, you can bet that the days of the Cornhusker Kickback are numbered.

By campaigning against the way Washington works, Brown served as a lesson to Democrats facing voters this year: the public’s anti-establishment passion didn’t die down after 2008. Previously unheralded health reform provisions — like a measure ensuring Congress would get its healthcare under the very same rules it writes for average Americans — have now become part of the national debate. Those who vote against reform would be protecting special congressional health privileges, while allowing insurance companies to profit handsomely by denying coverage and jacking up premiums. Try hopping in your pickup truck and selling that to the folks back home.

Republican strategists, perhaps sensing that their Massachusetts victory has come to define the law of unintended consequences, are now tripping over themselves to offer political advice to their opponents.

Why would Republicans dedicated to defeating Democrats this November be giving those same Democrats advice on how to save their seats?

I can’t figure it out. Somebody go ask Scott Brown.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.