Claire McCaskill Leaves the Washington ‘Sugar High’ Behind

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “I’m proud of being a pragmatist,” said Claire McCaskill.

The Democratic senator from Missouri was sitting in a large, comfortable chair in her large, comfortable office, acting as if she didn’t have a care in the world. The Senate was in session, but her press aide wasn’t keeping track of the time, and staff members weren’t lined up outside the door, eager to rush in the moment I left.

Six weeks earlier, McCaskill, 65, arguably the nation’s most productive legislator, had lost her bid for a third term to the state’s attorney general, Josh Hawley, a 38-year-old Republican ideologue. Truth to tell, she didn’t look terribly upset about it.

“I’m competitive,” she told me when I visited her in the first week of December — one of a number of admiring journalists seeking an exit interview.  “I hate losing. But this place is a grind. It wasn’t as much fun as it used to be, and it was wearing on me. And,” she added, “the middle is evaporating.”

A former prosecutor and state auditor, McCaskill naturally gravitated to the middle as a senator because that’s where you can accomplish things. That’s where you can round up co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle for bills that tackle military spending or the opioid crisis or drug prices — and get Republicans as well as Democrats to vote for legislation you care about. “There is a sugar high around here caused by all the political rhetoric,” she told me. But “white hot political rhetoric” doesn’t solve problems.

After the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, the progressive wing of the Missouri Democratic Party used to complain about McCaskill’s unwillingness to be a vocal member of the “resistance,” like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. But McCaskill’s reasons for doing so were both political — after all, Trump did take Missouri by almost 20 points — and strategic. “It’s not that I like Trump,” she said. “But I had to be disciplined because I wanted to get things done. So I held my tongue.”

Although she has only been in the Senate since 2007, McCaskill told me that it changed enormously in that time. It became less collegial, more prone to “partisan food fights,” with a dangerous emphasis on party loyalty and political purity. She blamed much of this on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “He is more focused on political success than anyone I’ve ever met,” she said. “For him, it’s never about policy. It’s always about, ‘How do I keep my members elected so I can keep my job as majority leader?’”

A perfect example, she said, was McConnell’s opposition to Obamacare. “He knew that change in health care was going to be difficult,” McCaskill said. “He knew that Obamacare was imperfect. But McConnell saw a real opportunity to use it like a political two-by-four that he could wield for years to come. We were saying, ‘Help us fix it.’ But the Republicans didn’t want to fix it. They saw the value in ‘Obamacare sucks.’”

During McCaskill’s first years in the Senate, members could vote against the wishes of party leaders without retribution. Now, she said, “today’s politics is not kind to people who stray from the party line. It’s created a dysfunctional environment.”

For instance, there used to be plenty of opportunities to offer amendments to bills, or to vote on amendments, “to help distinguish yourself as someone independent of your party,” McCaskill said. That was particularly important for Democrats in “reddish” states, and Republicans in “blueish” states. But in the last two years especially, the opportunities to amend a bill had dwindled — “so it’s become easy for an opponent to say I voted with Chuck Schumer 95 percent of the time,” she said, referring to the Senate minority leader.

In her view, McConnell was also largely responsible for destroying the collegiality that had existed in the Senate long after it had disappeared in the House. Just the other day she tweeted about it:

She also placed some of the blame for Congress’s dysfunction on changes in the news media. Part of it was the rise of MSNBC and Fox News, which cater to “the people making the noise” — and who, in her case, wanted a form of political purity that she believes is counterproductive.

But it’s also that the traditional media has both changed and shrunk. “When I first got here,” she said, “the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a half-dozen reporters in Washington. Now there is one person covering the entire Congress. It’s impossible. Now it’s all about social media, the cable networks, the unedited crap.”

She continued: “I worked on a bill that brought down the price of hearing aids. It was a big deal because hearing aids aren’t covered by Medicare. But nobody wrote about it, so nobody knew about it. But there is so much drama over that New York woman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, like she’s the new shining object. That’s how the media covers stuff now. And some of us are passing good old-fashioned bills, and we get nothing. Gimme a break!”

She added, pragmatically, “I think we need an institute of politics and journalism because of the shifting sands.”

I asked her what legislation she is most proud of as she walks out the door. She had a handful of examples, but Pentagon contracting was high on her list. “I’m a Harry Truman fangirl,” she said. “I was familiar with his history in ferreting out war profiteering.” She took a trip to Iraq, where she got a glimpse of the modern-day Pentagon contracting problem when a general told her, “When I want three kinds of ice cream in the mess, I don’t give a damn how much it costs.”

So she dug in, learned the ins and outs, and along with then-Senator John Warner — a Republican — wrote legislation to impose some best practices on Pentagon spending. “It was hard, complicated and took years,” McCaskill said, “but we changed things and made it a lot better.”

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked her what was likely to happen now that the Democrats were poised to take control of the House. “It will stop the worst things Trump might want to do, so long as there is discipline in prioritizing. Congressional investigations can’t be the entree. It needs to be the appetizer. The entree has to be drug prices, roads and bridges, actual governing. Democrats have to send the signal that is not all about Trump-bashing. If it turns into a free-for-all, Trump will have his perfect foil.”

She, on the other hand, will no longer need to be disciplined in what she says about the president. “Now that I don’t have to get things done, my job is to speak with knowledge and experience.”

“It will be a lot more fun,” said Claire McCaskill.

Susan B. Glasser’s 20-minute interview with McCaskill for The New Yorker radio hour is worth your time.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.