Politics

Claire McCaskill’s Bitter Farewell

The outgoing Missouri senator has no right to take potshots at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives.

Claire McCaskill; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Claire McCaskill; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Scott Olson/Getty Images, Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

Since she lost her bid for a third term as a U.S. senator from Missouri, Claire McCaskill has been trashing the left to anyone who’ll listen. She’s insulted Democrats who wanted her to be a more vocal critic of the president, Senate colleagues who questioned her opposition to banking regulations, and progressives who try to push their more moderate representatives to the left. In recent days, she’s expressed even more pointed ire for young women, abortion-rights activists, and voters excited by upstarts like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “She’s now talked about a lot,” McCaskill said of the 29-year-old incoming congresswoman from New York in a CNN interview that ran on Monday. “I’m not sure what she’s done yet to generate that kind of enthusiasm.”

Calling Ocasio-Cortez a “bright shiny new object,” McCaskill told CNN that Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist who ousted a long-seated congressman in a primary upset, should pay attention to the “whole lot of white working-class voters” who “need to hear about how their work is going to be respected, and the dignity of their jobs.” She boiled down Ocasio-Cortez’s appeal to her “cheap … rhetoric,” then remarked that “getting results is a lot harder.”

This potshot at a young woman of color who’d already become a favorite target of the right came just a few days after McCaskill told The Daily that she wished pro-choice activists who pressed her to be more vocal on abortion rights would “shut up.” These are “young women who have not spent any time outside of the group of people that agree with them,” McCaskill said. “Shame on them that they’re not working as hard as they can for me.” If abortion-rights advocates were ever going to throw their unqualified support behind McCaskill, they certainly won’t now that they’ve been scolded for advocating for their issue.

It’s anyone’s guess what McCaskill expects to gain from this bridge-burning farewell tour, especially since she hasn’t divulged any definitive post-Senate plans. (If she intends to run for office in Missouri again, she may be hoping that independents and moderate Republicans will be won over by her harsh words for members of her own party.) But the school of thought she’s promoting—one that blames progressives as much as conservatives for Democrats’ electoral losses—crystallizes the discomfort many prominent establishment Democrats have been feeling as they struggle to respond to calls for bold progressive policies while searching for a message that will resonate with voters who defected from Obama to Trump.

McCaskill’s cranky tirades started ramping up in the last weeks of her campaign, when she appeared on Fox News to rebut opponent Josh Hawley and his supporters, including Trump, who’d been painting the moderate Democrat as too liberal for the purplish-red state of Missouri. A radio ad for McCaskill assured voters that she wasn’t “one of those crazy Democrats.” When Fox’s Bret Baier asked her who the “crazy Democrats” were, McCaskill pointed to the activists who protested against White House officials in public places like restaurants. She declined to call any of her Senate colleagues by that moniker, then called out Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in the same breath. Her message was clear: Directly confronting the president and his cronies with evidence of their immoral and unconstitutional misdeeds is so “crazy,” it’s worth bad-mouthing your own party about.

It was a bit of a hypocritical point for McCaskill to make, considering that she’s admonished progressives who fail to “remember who their friends are” and go on to criticize their fellow Democrats. When she’s pressed on, say, her failure to mention abortion rights in her statement opposing Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court—a glaring omission from a senator representing a state of more than 6 million where targeted regulations have left just one abortion clinic in operation—McCaskill claims that no one understands the position she was in as a Democrat in a state that went for Trump by more than 18 points. If Democrats want to win in states like Missouri, she’s said, they need to welcome anti-abortion legislators into their ranks. In multiple interviews, she voiced the wish that abortion-rights activists would “just be quiet,” accept her solid pro-choice voting record as good enough, and let her try to appease her anti-abortion constituents by never mentioning the issue at all.

But McCaskill’s devotion to moderation at all costs undermines the image of herself she’s pushing: a Democrat committed to progressive ideals at her core, but one who’s making tough compromises to win elections so she can legislate for the greater good. If she were truly as devoted to abortion rights as she claims, why denigrate the pro-choice activists who demanded leadership on an urgent issue that matters most to them, instead of the “pro-life” ones who voted for the purveyors of a threadbare health care policy that will endanger low-income mothers and an immigration policy that’s killing children at the border? Why reserve her most vocal outbursts for the people who voted for her, instead of those who didn’t?

The fact is that McCaskill didn’t win re-election; whatever capitulation she thinks she made to anti-choice voters didn’t work, and it certainly wasn’t the fault of outspoken pro-choicers who, if anything, made her seem like even more of a centrist renegade. Besides that, Missouri isn’t the deep-rooted anti-choice landscape McCaskill has made it out to be. In 2014, 45 percent of Missourians supported legal abortion “in all or most cases,” while 50 percent wanted it illegal. U.S. support for abortion rights has risen since then. Now is not the time to be weakening the Democratic Party’s platform on abortion rights, what with 58 percent of the nation placing themselves in the all-or-mostly-legal category and a new Supreme Court roster promising to roll back generations’ worth of protections for women’s bodily autonomy.

McCaskill’s theory of electable moderation—and her belittling of those who contravene it—betrays a vision of leadership that’s massively ill-equipped for the challenges and threats of today’s political climate. In an interview with a Bloomberg reporter who once called her “the best Democratic senator,” McCaskill touted “a bill that brought down the price of hearing aids” as one of her major accomplishments that “nobody wrote about.” By contrast, she said, “There is so much drama over that New York woman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, like she’s the new shining object. … And some of us are passing good old-fashioned bills, and we get nothing. Gimme a break!” Reducing hearing aid costs might save elderly and disabled Americans a few hundred dollars each, a great service to vulnerable populations who absolutely deserve a spot on any elected official’s priority list. But politicians who laud incremental, bipartisan, widely popular accomplishments while scoffing at more sweeping, riskier legislative goals have no right to be angry when advocates for those goals are hailed as the future of a political party. In all her condescending remarks about Ocasio-Cortez—including those about the importance of working-class whites and their jobs—McCaskill never once responded to the incoming legislator’s vision for a Green New Deal, a package of policies that would simultaneously address two of the country’s most pressing issues, climate change and economic disparities. It’s the kind of jobs-focused policy idea you’d think McCaskill would support if she’d been able to see past the rhetoric (talk about cheap!) of the right.

If McCaskill thinks it’s unfair that the media is more excited about a gutsy, grassroots-y newcomer with big ideas than it is about a hearing aid price-reduction bill, she might take the opportunity to extrapolate it into a lesson about what motivates voters. Those she encountered at her meet-and-greets might have said they cared most about policies that affect their prescription drug prices and health care, but Missouri’s voting record says otherwise. If Republicans and moderates voted based on practical policy and legislative priorities, they wouldn’t have elected, by a margin of more than 18 points, a lying grifter with no political experience and an unwillingness to absorb basic facts about the economy. If their priority was health care, they wouldn’t have gone for a Senate candidate from the party that’s spent the past several years trying to shred the Affordable Care Act. Voters need a vision, a bold plan for change, and, yes, rhetoric as much as they need small policy wins. Trump and his supporters, including Sen.-elect Hawley, have been willing to exploit the racist fears of the electorate to promote their vision of a “great” America. It’s despicable, galling, and terrifying for anyone who cares about the future of the nation. But it’s not the progressives’ fault.