Today (Dec. 17) Claire McCaskill brought her traveling “Kitchen Table Talks” road show to the St. Louis Community College at Forest Park.  Since I suspect that much of what was said will parallel the exchanges at the Kansas City meeting, and that other attendees may be posting more details of today’s meeting, I will simply offer some quick impressions.

After apologizing for the scheduling (weekdays when many cannot attend), and for the need to limit the duration of the meeting (another meeting was scheduled later in the same auditorium), McCaskill took questions from an audience of about 350 to 400 people for nearly an hour and a half.

The questions ranged from national issues to individual requests for help.  McCaskill’s responses, while remarkably consistent in terms of underlying philosophy, reminded me of why I am so frustrated with her.  Like the little girl in the nursery rhyme, when she is good, she is very, very good, but when she is bad, she is horrid.

First the good:  On many issues, McCaskill stands with the angels and seems to have no fear of letting the devils know it.  She gave clear and reassuring answers to questions ranging from concerns about harmful “midnight” regulations emanating from the Bush administration to the Employee Free Choice Act (she supports it).  

Throughout, McCaskill’s responses showed her to be  smart and pragmatic with real integrity about addressing financial issues realistically.  Also impressive was her emphasis on answering honestly. She didn’t pull any punches, even when her responses might not have been well received.

For instance, to those demanding that the proposed  financial stimulus package be amended to achieve specific social goals, McCaskill responded firmly that she believes this spending has to be designed to benefit the economy first and foremost, and that other social benefits are secondary. It would surely have been easier to just nod and agree that such and such should be included; after all, McCaskill will be only one of many helping to sculpt this package and she could probably get away with saying just about anything.

But what about the bad?  Or the ugly?  

While I by no means believe that McCaskill is unprincipled, her pragmatism does not always stop short of what, for those of us who value our democracy, has to be the proverbial line in the sand. Remember her FISA compromises?  Didn’t seem to bother her a bit–I seriously think she didn’t even understand the underlying principles that drove those protesting her vote.  And today I had the same feeling at a few crucial points.

Most notably, McCaskill revealed her mushy core when she was asked about holding Bush and Cheney accountable for torture and for lying in order to take the country to war in Iraq. Her response? Bush and Cheney had their accountability moment last November when their policies were repudiated at the polls!  Perhaps politicians can confuse criminal accountability with political rejection, but there are many of us who recoil with disgust at this casual effort to blur a very important distinction.  

McCaskill did add, in her pragmatic mode, that she did not want conflict over accountability issues to distract people from the new administration’s proposals to achieve goals that will actually help people.  All well and good, but tell me, if the powerful can commit crimes on such a grand scale and escape essentially unscathed, isn’t our democracy damaged in ways that will ultimately undermine any shorter-term good that is achieved?