Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill looked out on a crowd of largely St. Charles County and some St. Louis County elected officials and Republican and Democratic party activists and spoke about the possibility of political bipartisanship.
“It’s awfully hard for me to come to talk to you about bipartisanship since I come from Washington,” said McCaskill, to about 100 attendees at the Bates-Krekel Society luncheon held July 20 at the St. Charles Family Arena. “I get it that from a distance it looks like we’ve lost our minds and that we do not know how to work together, that we do not know how to get things done, that we are gridlocked in our respective corners.
“Is bipartisanship dead? No, it’s not, but I would say it’s on life support.”
The Bates-Krekel Society is one place that might offer such support. St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, a Republican, and St. Charles County Circuit Judge Ted House, a Democrat, formed the society to explore common ground between the two parties. Both were St. Charles County colleagues in the Missouri Senate.
The society holds semi-annual meetings to encourage civil dialogue, debate divisive issues and come to some kind of common ground on others, House said. It’s named for county residents Barton Bates and Arnold Krekel, influential leaders during the Civil War. Krekel, a Democrat, and Bates, a Whig, tried to put aside disagreements to preserve the union and support Abraham Lincoln’s election.
Citing examples of bipartisanship in Washington, McCaskill said she and Republican leaders have found common ground on legislation dealing with issues such as college sexual assault, the security clearance process, regulating “robo calls” that “bug Missourians as much as anything that I hear from them about,” streamlining the federal permit process for businesses, and the Defense Authorization Act that sets military policy.
But she noted that the current political landscape does not encourage compromise. The lack of bipartisanship is not only evident at the federal level, but also in the Missouri General Assembly, McCaskill said.
She said the dysfunction is “a complicated stew of redistricting, campaigns, the base of our parties, modern media, apathy and cynicism and sometimes a lack of courage.”
A major issue is redistricting that protects incumbents and the political party. Candidates for congressional or state legislative seats now usually have to worry about one thing – a primary, McCaskill said. Candidates have to appeal to party activists who are “not people in the middle,” and want purity over compromise.
“If all you’re worried about are primaries, you have no motivation to get to the middle unless you are actually in a swing seat or running statewide,” she said
Other factors include tuning into news media where people get less “information than affirmation,” she said.
Checking the thousands of communications her office receives from state constituents, she said it seems that about 30 to 40 percent are watching Fox News and about 30 percent watch MSNBC. “The rest of them are watching “Dancing with the Stars” and they think we’re all crazy,” she said.
She acknowledged that many of these people are busy with their lives, trying to make ends meet and trying to figure out how to send their children to college or if they can afford to retire.
“Guess what they want: compromise, they want common sense, they want pragmatism,” she said. “That’s why both Republicans and Democrats win statewide in Missouri, because the “Dancing with the Stars” people show up to vote and they think the two ends are a bit wacky.”
The solution is mobilizing the “Dancing with the Stars” people, she said. She added that everyone has to be less afraid of losing elections and more afraid of Americans losing faith in their government.
She said she wished she could “clone” groups like the Bates-Krekel Society.
“None of this means you have to give up things you believe in,” she said. “It just mean we have to take off our blinders to the notion that the most important thing in the world is to win an election, and the most important thing in the world is to protect our political parties. That’s not the most important thing in the world.”
After McCaskill’s remarks, Ehlmann said that St. Charles County legislators from both parties worked well together across the aisle when he was a state senator. There were fewer legislators then – six local state legislators then as opposed to 13 now.
“St. Louis County used to marvel at how we were able to get together on things that affected St. Charles County, such as education and transportation and public safety,” Ehlmann said. “We voted together 90 percent of the time.”
St. Louis County then had 24 legislators.
“People in St. Louis County were always kind of jealous because they were just too big to get everybody together and work together like that,” Ehlmann said.