Scott Brown is the Most _________* Man In America

*Fill in the blank. He’ll be whoever you want him to be.

Just before 2 p.m., the Republicans finish offering their amendments, and it’s time to vote on the healthcare bill. Vice President Joe Biden presides. The Democrats filter into the chamber. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asks for a moment of silence for Ted Kennedy, whose life’s work was this bill and whose seat today, roughly opposite Brown’s own, is empty. The moment of silence lasts for 30 seconds.

At 2:01, Brown casts his “no” vote and, like most other Republicans, leaves the chamber. The bill passes, 56-43 — and with it, the hard right’s infatuation with Scott Brown. Tomorrow’s newspapers will repeat a theme: The Republicans — especially the newly elected Republican who promised the most — had stopped nothing.

Watching him duck out back doors, and write letters alone in his corner, and struggle to impress his fellow Republicans, it’s easy to assume that 41’s political capital has dropped to zero. But what happened late last night suggests otherwise.

At some point deep into the votes on the Republican amendments, Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota walked over and sat next to Brown. They talked for more than half an hour, Brown leaning into Franken, laughing at his jokes — and then getting the former SNL star to laugh at some of his own. Then Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, another Democrat, stopped by for a long chat on bike legislation. Then Brown himself walked across the aisle, and with a confidence that was lacking earlier in the night, began to work the room. He joked with Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, lightly punched Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow on the shoulder. For a moment, he had the attention of a small crowd of Democrats.

The truth is the Democrats need him. Brown is a swing vote in a deeply divided Senate, which is another way to say: the most sought-after, the most powerful vote in the chamber. Powerful because an ill-defined ideology can be its own ideology, and because at any given moment only Scott Brown knows what Scott Brown’s up to. It’s worked for him so far.

With additional reporting by Joe Keohane.