Last Saturday (March 5), Claire McCaskill spent an informal hour visiting with several members of the group Progressive Democrats–STL. My impressions of the meeting can be summarized by referencing a post in which, early in this blog’s history, I compared her to the little girl in the poem who, when she is good, is very good indeed, but when she is bad, is … , well, maybe “horrid” would be an overstatement. It’s difficult to be too hard on somebody who seems so willing to put all her cards on the table.
McCaskill is an attractive politician who comes across as sincere in her efforts to please her constituents, balance their often conflicting demands in the best way possible, and remain true to at least a modicum of her own beliefs. She seems painfully aware of what a difficult challenge this formula poses for a Missouri Democrat, and has clearly pinned her hopes on the ever-swinging center – and she deserves respect for not equivocating about that fact, even in a roomful of hard-core progressives.
In response to concerns about Democratic messaging, McCaskill seemed to me to be right on the money when she noted that it must be shaped by the current Republican overreach. She noted that Roy Blunt’s winning margins in the counties he took in the last election were less than hers in 2006, and, in so many words, observed that while some independents who had previously voted for her were willing to buy the GOP message in 2010, it is unlikely that they realized then that they were voting for the wholesale attack on the middle class that the GOP is now orchestrating in both Washington and on the state level. In short, she seems to think that Democrats have a chance in Missouri in 2012.
So far, so good – McCaskill is not just very good when she’s good, she’s obviously also very smart about politics. The latest GOP-led orgy of corporate giveaways, financed by benefits looted from the tax-paying middle class, does seem to be alienating lots of regular, every-day, working people who are waking up to the fact that they, not some mythical welfare queens, are the ones under attack.
Subsequently, however, McCaskill’s very good persona shone a little less brightly. While she affirmed her intention to stand firm against cuts in Social Security benefits, as I observed in an earlier post, the question comes down to how one defines benefits – and, last Saturday at least, McCaskill made it clear that she will probably go along with efforts to up the eligibility age.
The Senator rationalized this position by noting that such changes would be pushed so far into the future that they would affect “babies not even born yet.” She contended that if such measures are not taken, the Social Security burden will become unmanageable in the future, partly, she suggested, because average life spans are increasing. These statements are, of course, disputable from several points of view, and it would have been interesting to hear how McCaskill responds to arguments against them, had time and the nature of the gathering permitted that type of back-and-forth.
The same constraints governed the discussion about her signature deficit cutting crusade, although it was evident that she is firm that fixing the deficit is a major here-and-now priority, rather than an admittedly real problem that might, nevertheless, more effectively be dealt with after we dig ourselves out our current economic hole – a position that many serious economists hold. To her credit, she did, if I remember correctly, concede that the deficit is not only a spending problem, but also a revenue problem.
Finally, I was interested to hear McCaskill’s response to a question about how we can counter the potentially ruinous effects of the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision. She believes that transparency legislation, specifically the Disclose Act, would have effectively curtailed the damage. She claimed that corporations would be shy about being identified with attacks of the sort that we saw during the last election. Here, as is often the case, the proof is in the pudding, and, as McCaskill noted, given the way the congressional votes stack up, it doesn’t look like we’re going to get to sample any of that Disclose Act pudding. We will not be able to learn, at least in the short term, if transparency is sufficient to discourage dishonest partisan political “speech” on the part of corporations.
One of the goals of the meeting, I believe, was to try to communicate to Senator McCaskill the depth of progressive longing for elected Democrats who are unafraid take a strong, values-based stance – and how that longing, if thwarted, might end up turning on her. It was clear that she understands that she runs that risk; but it was also clear that she thinks that, as far as progressives go, she can count on the fear and loathing excited by the extreme GOP candidates (think Ed Martin and Sarah Steelman) who have so far entered the race.
The meeting did succeed in suggesting ways that groups like the Progressive Democrats-STL can work with the Democratic party to counter GOP inroads in Missouri, thanks to the fact that McCaskill was willing to share her considerable knowledge of practical Missouri politics with the group. One of the other attendees remarked that the progressive task is not to move McCaskill more toward more progressive positions, but to do what is necessary to move Missourians in that direction. True that – although it doesn’t mean that we should ever let McCaskill off the hook. Leaders, after all, are supposed to lead.