The Left Is Sabotaging the Best Democratic Senator

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The New York Times podcast “The Daily” devoted two episodes last week to a fight taking place within the Democratic Party in Missouri, where two-term Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill is running for re-election.

When McCaskill first won her seat in 2006, Missouri was basically a centrist state. Since then, it’s become as red as Alabama or Idaho. The last Democratic president to win Missouri was Bill Clinton in 1996; 20 years later, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 19 percentage points. When McCaskill ran for re-election in 2012, she was labeled “the most endangered incumbent” until her opponent, Todd Akin, self-destructed. This time around, with Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley as her opponent, she is ranked third on Roll Call’s list of the “10 most vulnerable senators.

So you’d think that Missouri Democrats would feel some urgency in helping the 65-year-old McCaskill capture a third term. If the Democrats hope to win back the Senate, they can’t afford to lose Missouri. You’d also think the state’s Democrats would understand that running in Missouri, McCaskill can’t come across sounding like an East Coast liberal — her speeches and interviews need to be inclusive enough to attract, say moderate Republican women who might be fuming about the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a nomination McCaskill opposed.

Yet the party’s progressive wing appears to be angry because McCaskill won’t adopt their rhetoric on the most incendiary political issue of them all: abortion. You see, in 2016, after a Republican rout in Missouri, the state Democratic committee decided to include a plank in its platform saying that pro-life Missourians were welcome in the party.

In no way was this plank an effort to turn away from the Democrats’ long-standing support for a woman’s right to choose. It was simply an attempt to broaden the party’s appeal.

But Missouri progressives viewed the language as heresy. One Democratic activist, Pamela Merritt, described it as “bizarre, regressive, anti-woman language” as well as “a foul stench.” She and others quickly moved to remove the offending plank (which they succeeded in doing).

In addition, progressives began taking McCaskill to task for not speaking out against the plank — and, more generally, for not being more vocal on the campaign trail about the importance of abortion rights. Although McCaskill has a stellar voting record on the issue, she generally doesn’t talk about abortion, knowing that can only cost her votes. Yet as a result, the progressive wing of the Missouri Democratic Party appears to have lost its enthusiasm for its candidate.

This is, to say the least, troubling, and not just because the Democrats need to hold onto Missouri if they hope to retake the Senate. Just as important, to my thinking, McCaskill is an unusually good senator — smart, serious, unflashy, unafraid to engage in bipartisanship, and willing to do the hard work that’s required to craft meaningful legislation. These are qualities in short supply in today’s Senate.

One of her core issues, for instance, is the opioid epidemic, which she pursues as the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The committee chairman is Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin. On the committee’s homepage is a list of recent Johnson news releases:

“Johnson Releases New Details about Intel Briefing on Steele Dossier to President-Elect Trump.”

“Johnson Requests Information on FBI’s Interaction with Michael Sussman and Bruce Ohr.”

“Johnson Requests Unredacted Report on FBI Official Accused of Accepting Gifts from Media.”

And so on.

Here, on the other hand, is a typical McCaskill news release:

As it happens, I received this release via email Wednesday from the minority side’s press office; indeed, that’s what got me thinking about this. The report itself, the fourth McCaskill has issued about the opioid crisis since last year, is impressively researched. It is also devastating.

It focuses on how Insys Therapeutics Inc.’s compensation system — both for its salesforce and for the doctors who prescribe its fentanyl drug — was geared to rewarding ever more prescriptions in ever higher doses. Its addenda includes over 100 pages of emails, memos and charts that vividly illustrate just how ugly these practices were. (One of the company’s slogans was “Don’t forget the doses.”)

What is particularly striking is that McCaskill is doing this pretty much on her own, using the committee’s minority staff as her investigators. The Republicans on the committee have had no involvement in her investigation, and haven’t even held a hearing in Washington. McCaskill, who doesn’t have the power to call a hearing, held several “roundtables” on opioids last year — being in the minority, that’s the best she could do. She also doesn’t have subpoena power, which the majority controls. When Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. refused to turn over documents she requested, she asked Johnson if he would issue a subpoena. He said no.

If we lived in a better world, these investigations would lead to results that might bring the crisis to an end. Company executives and physicians would be indicted. And Congress would pass laws to stop the practices she has exposed. But we don’t live in that world, in no small part because senators like McCaskill have become dinosaurs.

Which brings me back to those Missouri progressives. Christopher Kelly, a retired judge who served in the state legislature with McCaskill, was scathing in his view of what the left was doing in Missouri. “They operate in this fantasy,” he told the Times, “that we’re going to have a political renaissance or enlightenment, where everybody is going to decide that their ideas — the ideas of the lefties — are now their ideas.” He added:

When you become contemptuous of conservative Democrats, you promote the election of their opponents. And their opponents are 100 percent worse for the environment, 100 percent worse for working people, 100 percent worse for L.G.B.T. people, for women, for black people, for immigrants.

McCaskill’s re-election struggle is tough enough without the state’s “lefties” turning against her. If she loses, they won’t be the only ones who will be the poorer. So will Missouri. So will the country.

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.”

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