COLUMN: McCaskill not afraid to go against the current

Thursday, June 10, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

Claire McCaskill and Jay Nixon, our state's two highest-ranking Democrats, have a lot in common – and at least one glaring difference.

Both are small-town raised, MU-educated and veterans of the slow-moving upward escalator of Jeff City office holding. Both are, or from a distance appear to be, decent and well-intentioned public servants.

The important difference is this: Sen. McCaskill comes from what I'd describe as the Harry Truman school of politics. She speaks her mind even when it's not opportune to do so. She doesn't seem to have any problem going against the current. Examples are easy to come by.

The most recent example of impolitic speech was reported in the Columbia Daily Tribune just last week. She was in town, speaking at the VFW, when a veteran took her to task for her vote to repeal the misbegotten "don't ask, don't tell" policy that serves mainly to force gays and lesbians either to lie or to leave the armed forces. The VFW opposes repeal. The senator reminded the group that there was also widespread opposition, within and outside the services, when President Truman ordered racial integration.

"I'm not sure there's ever a wrong time to do the right thing," she said. The Tribune reported applause "from most in the room." I'd guess the applause was more for her courage than it was a signal of agreement on the issue.

Maybe an even bolder stance was the one she took to become one of the first senators to support publicly Barack Obama's candidacy for president. The price she paid in her relationship with the front-runner, Hillary Clinton, is pungently described in the book "Game Change," which I recommend to any politics buff.

She hasn't been in Mr. Obama's pocket, though, having questioned his energy legislation and voted against the extension of his "cash for clunkers" program.

You may have gathered by now that I'm a big fan, despite my occasional disagreements with some of her positions.

As to Gov. Nixon, not so much. Oh, I voted for him and probably will again – certainly if his Republican opponent is our current lieutenant governor. But Mr. Nixon comes from a different strain of Missourians. I call it the "we're poor and ignorant and proud of it" faction, which cuts across party lines. That may seem a little harsh, at least as applied to the governor, so let me explain.

The politicians produced by this apparent majority of Missourians are the sort who, confronted by inadequate revenue to support vital public services, will cut the services rather than even consider raising revenue. They regard any mention of anything that could be considered a tax increase as though it were a Taser aimed at their heart or at least at their office.

They don't seem to see – or, if they see it, to recognize that there's anything wrong – the connection between our lowest-in-the-nation tobacco tax and our leadership position in smoking-related disease. They don't see anything worth remedying in our having one of the nation's most regressive tax structures, or in the sieve of loopholes for the influential that shift the burden downward.

So we starve our schools while we fill our prisons. Our university leaders have to smile and accept a mere 5 percent budget cut, being grateful that they didn't get whacked as did the popular and successful Parents as Teachers program. Our governor declined to support national healthcare reform, and our legislature postures about opting out.

This is the mindset that dominates our state Capitol. Maybe the difference between Sen. McCaskill and Gov. Nixon is that she got out before being caught in it and he didn't. The governor might say, of course, that he's being practical.

That may be true, but sometimes excessive pragmatism prevents leadership.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Curt Wohleber June 10, 2010 | 9:07 a.m.

Would McCaskill be any less tax-averse than Nixon if she were governor? Her scolding about the deficit and efforts to water-down the stimulus bill suggest otherwise.

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