In the different fates of Joe Nixon and Bill Ratliff lies a message about how politics works. Each is a Republican. Each worked hard on tort reform. Each guided a version of the bill through his chamber pretty much intact, without unwanted amendments. Yet Nixon is on the Worst list and Ratliff is on the Best list. What’s the difference?

In a word, perception. Ratliff long ago made his reputation as his own man, someone who is totally independent, but Nixon was carrying his first important bill. It was crucial for him to establish his independence, but when he kept opposing reasonable amendments (along with a lot of clearly unreasonable ones), he began to look like a lobby lapdog. Sometimes he was disingenuous, as when he described the tort-reform effort as being about how we live together as a society. Everybody on both sides knew better. It was about making it easier for defendants to win lawsuits, that is, about money.

At times Nixon didn’t even bother to make cogent arguments. When Democrat Steve Wolens, a lawyer, asked in debate whether a judge was required in class-action lawsuits to refer the case to a state agency for review—”Am I reading this wrong? Please tell me I am?”—Nixon’s response was “I’m not sure that you are or are not. And this is the great thing about the law. Anytime you get two lawyers together, you get four opinions.” Very authoritative.

Nixon’s bill started to leak credibility, especially when Democrats forced him to send it back to committee briefly because he had held an impromptu meeting behind closed doors, apparently in violation of House rules. By the time the bill passed the House by the expected large margin, Nixon had lost the message war. Ratliff had a clear field to write the fair tort-reform bill he wanted; only in medical-malpractice damage limitations did he have to compromise with the House. The provisions Nixon had failed to make a case for disappeared—as did his chance of staying off the Worst list.