Over the years, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri has deftly juggled her political stances in a way that she has maintained the solid backing of her liberal base while throwing enough bones to Missouri’s rural and conservative voters to get elected — and re-elected — to the most coveted political position below the presidency.
In 2006, for example, she successfully portrayed herself as a “pro-gun” candidate, a position that went a long way toward helping her defeat incumbent Republican Sen. JimTalent.
(More recently, in her second and probably last term as a senator, McCaskill has voted for expanded background checks for people making purchases on the Internet and at gun shows, and for stiffer penalties for “straw purchases,” when individuals buy guns for those who are barred from purchasing them.)
She has walked the political tightrope in admirable fashion, and I’m a fan of hers. Indications are that she will run for governor in 2016, and I hope she does so and wins. She would be a tenfold improvement over Jay Nixon, and I think even most Republicans would come to share that opinion.
But McCaskill has a problem. Since she has been in office, Missouri has gone from a swing state to solid red. As a result, McCaskill will find it more difficult than ever to walk the tightrope and gather enough Republican support to prevail.
Which brings me to this: She’s already honing her Wallenda act with a controversial position she has taken in regard to clamping down on sexual assault in the military.
Unarguably, McCaskill has exhibited strong leadership in that reform movement, as evidenced by the fact that her bill to force changes in the military’s sexual-assault policies passed 97-0 in March. The measure, which is now awaiting action in the House, would establish new rules for how victims and defendants should be treated.
If you haven’t been following this closely, however, it was not the slam-dunk that it appeared to be. A few days earlier, a competing bill, sponsored by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a fellow Democrat, was defeated on a close 55-45 vote.
The major difference between the Gillibrand and McCaskill bills is that Gillibrand’s would remove from the chain of military command the decision on what charges to bring and which cases to prosecute. Instead, under Gillibrand’s bill, those decisions would be placed in the hands of independent prosecutors.
One of McCaskill’s arguments for letting military commanders continue to make those calls is that prosecutors are more interested in victories than in simply bringing cases. Thus, she says, independent prosecutors would be less inclined than commanders to file charges in cases where the evidence is equivocal.
Now, if you ask me, Gillibrand’s position makes far more sense than McCaskill’s. Having independent prosecutors make decisions on whether to bring sexual-assault charges seems far preferable than keeping commanders in charge — commanders who, in many cases, might oversee both the victim and the accuser. A strong indicator of the desirability of Gillibrand’s approach is the fact that 10 Republican senators joined 35 Democratic senators in voting for Gillibrand’s bill. Obviously, that’s no small feat in Washington’s stand-off political environment.
Among the 10 Republicans who voted for Gillibrand’s bill were three of the most high-profile members of the upper chamber: Minority Leader (now Majority-Leader-elects) Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul, also of Kentucky.
In a Nov. 30, New York Times Magazine story, Cruz was quoted as saying, “(W)hat they’re doing (the military) hasn’t been working, and we need to take more serious steps.”
To McCaskill’s concern, I’m sure, this issue does not appear to be firmly settled. A week ago today, Gillibrand and several other senators who favor her position (including Cruz and Paul), held a news conference and said they would push for another vote on the issue. That could happen if amendments are allowed to the National Defense Authorization Act, which outlines Defense Department spending priorities.
But that is a long shot, mainly because two men who oppose opening the door to amendments are Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan and Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona. In a recent New York Times story, Levin said he worried that allowing amendments would open a “Pandora’s box” of other requests.
In any event, interesting lines have been drawn, and the battle isn’t over. If the issue is resurrected, McCaskill could come under a harsher, hotter light for her position. It could get to the point that some, or many members, of her liberal base might decide that McCaskill, while talking a good game, is actually afraid to stand up to the Pentagon.
In reality, though — at least in my view — timidity is not the issue; it’s politics. She’s just projecting how the issue will play in outstate Missouri…where it pays to be with the generals.