As the House prepares for its final push on health care, there are Democratic members, particularly those from conservative districts, who are facing a hard truth: This is the kind of vote that can end a career.
I’ve found myself thinking a lot lately about one of the most extraordinary spectacles I have ever witnessed in the House Chamber. It was the night of August 5, 1993, and Bill Clinton was one vote short of what he needed to get his economic plan through the House–a vote he got, when freshman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky switched hers. The other side of the Chamber seemed to explode. Republicans pulled out their hankies and started waving them at her, chanting: “Bye-bye, Margie.”
Margolies-Mezvinsky learned the hard way that they were right. Her Main Line Philadelphia district was the most Republican-leaning of any represented by a Democrat in Congress. She had sealed her fate:
During her campaign, she had promised not to raise taxes, and the budget proposed a hike in federal taxes, including a gasoline tax. On the day of the vote, she appeared on television and told her constituents that she was against the budget. Minutes before the vote, however, on August 5, 1993, President Clinton called to ask Margolies-Mezvinsky to support the measure. She told him that only if it was the deciding vote—in this case, the 218th yea—would she support the measure. “I wasn’t going to do it at 217. I wasn’t going to do it at 219. Only at 218, or I was voting against it,” she recalled.11 She also extracted a promise from Clinton that if she did have to vote for the budget package, that he would attend a conference in her district dedicated to reducing the budget deficit. He agreed (and later fulfilled the pledge). Nevertheless, Margolies-Mezvinsky told Clinton “I think I’m falling on a political sword on this one.”
This week, I caught up with Margolies, who has since founded Women’s Campaign International, an organization that develops female leaders in emerging democracies and post-conflict regions, and who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. (She also, by the way, is Chelsea Clinton’s future mother-in-law). Margolies, too, is struck by the parallels she sees between the agonizing choice that she faced back then and what lies ahead for some House Democrats:
“I never thought they would come to me,” she recalls. “It’s tough. It’s very tough. It’s not an easy thing to get to Congress.” By the next election, she says, one-third of the women who had come to the House in the Class of 1992 were gone–largely as the result of that one vote.
Margolies insists that she did the right thing. What was wrong was with politics itself, she says. The bill was at least 80% grounded in Republican-backed ideas, and had been endorsed by Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. The fighting over that last 20% was “heartbreakingly partisan to me, and I’m very much a centrist,” she recalls. “It just infuriated me.”
She thinks it has only gotten worse since she left Congress. “What has happened is the minority has taken over,” Margolies insisted. “Democrats don’t frame as well as Republicans do. [And for Democrats,] this is the vote that is going to get a tremendous amount of play in their districts.”
Margolies thought that she could make her constituents understand why she had made the choice she did. But she underestimated the power of the sound bite. “I was really good at the four-minute explanation when I went back back to the district,” she says. “But it’s the Frank Luntz 30 seconds that kills you.” She notes ruefully that her name has become shorthand in Washington for committing political suicide. “I was a terrible politician. It was a drive-by,” she says. “I never thought I’d become a verb.”
Over the next few weeks, it will worth keeping an eye on Democrats from conservative districts with that in mind. This will be one of those rare votes that confronts them with a choice between political survival, or leaving a legacy when they are gone.