Danforth and McCaskill not giving up on democracy

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, March 18, 2022

Former U.S. Sens. John Danforth and Claire McCaskill discussed the lack of bipartisanship in American politics Monday night at Stephens College with President Dianne Lynch serving as moderator.

McCaskill, a Democrat, and Danforth, a Republican, talked for an hour during a Zoom conference arranged by a group called the Unnamed Committee of Boone County for Open Minds in Politics.

Danforth began the evening’s discussion saying that for two centuries we believed the national motto “E Pluribus Unum” meaning “Out of Many, One” suggesting that despite party disagreement, the goal of national unity was always present.

It’s hard to see that we still act like that. Danforth observed that the main value politicians agree on is how to get elected by appealing to, and growing, “the base.” Danforth said he believes the many Republican candidates sound the same because they constantly use the word fight.

McCaskill was asked about the current political climate and replied, “things are bad, really bad. We demonize the other side.” Danforth referred to a poll of Missourians where 80% say the “the political system is broken.” I agree with them, but it is disappointing that I’ve heard this since at least the late 1990s and not much corrective action, a.k.a. “reforms,” have been adopted.

The two former Missouri senators agree on several causes of our hyper polarization and even on some reforms. For starters, they agree that the primary election process allows party extremists greater influence than they deserve.

Secondly, they agree that the traditional Senate procedure called “regular order ” is no longer used. That’s the process we learned in school about “how a bill becomes a law.” Danforth said that nowadays, major bills are drafted in the White House, the Speaker’s office or the Senate majority leader’s office, rather than in a committee resulting with most senators not having an opportunity to amend the bill as it makes its way through the chamber.

Danforth and McCaskill agree most senators have only a single up or down vote on a finished bill consisting of complicated subsections, so senators end up preaching partisan speeches to the empty Senate chamber rather than working out a compromise that improves the bill.

Danforth briefly referred to his recent search for a centralist Republican to run as an independent who, once elected, could avoid being stuck in the same party adding to the nastiness of modern day poor institutional performance. Danforth said he expects there would be ample campaign funding made available for such a person, but, so far, a suitable candidate has not been announced.

I like the idea and wish it well. It reminds me of the “No Labels” national movement that makes sense in its quest for solutions to tough problems but seems to be stuck in neutral.

Both Danforth and McCaskill called for making politics and the Senate more human. Danforth recalled that his friendship with fellow Missouri Sen. Tom Eagleton, of the other party, began when Eagleton commented to Danforth at an early social event after Danforth had just been elected that “I know you wish your father was here.”

Danforth characterized Eagleton’s thoughtfulness as a fundamental human response that led to them having cordial conversations about political issues. McCaskill added that she had a similar relationship with her fellow Sen. Roy Blunt.

Both former senators agreed that reform ideas have to be actionable, not just a “pie in the sky” proposal. They had several ideas they agreed on. They both criticized gerrymandering and endorsed rank-choice voting — an idea I wrote about several weeks ago at the local level.

The senators disagreed a bit when it comes to campaign finance reform, a topic McCaskill said they had discussed with one another before. Danforth is less enthusiastic about the benefits and feasibility of campaign funding reform than is McCaskill who is mainly concerned with the flow of “dark money,” which is money donated without disclosing the donor’s name.

One topic not mentioned during the Zoom conversation was the news media. I have accepted the reality that (1) few citizens want to watch CSPAN-type programming every day and (2) that the economics of the media will always favor “expert” interviews rather than deep documentaries.

The media is ratings-driven and subscription-driven, so many of us know who AOC, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Marjorie Taylor Greene are but probably can’t place the name Dick Durbin. This is no way to inform a democracy.

The fault ultimately lies with us — the voters. Not only are we not as well informed as we could be, many of us don’t vote and many are single-issue voters when we do.

McCaskill said she told her staff “if a constituent calls thanking me for compromising on an issue, come and get me immediately.” She reports she was never interrupted for that reason.

Danforth proposed, and McCaskill endorsed, “taking a person of the other party to lunch and getting to know them as a person.” To that end, I invite the first Republican and the first Democrat, who I don’t yet know, to contact me for lunch (on me).

We will not immediately discuss politics, per se, but will learn about each other as just as fellow humans. Who knows, maybe we will do it twice and move toward a humane conversation about some current political issues.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.

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