Put yourself in Claire McCaskill’s shoes.
There she is, passing judgment on President Donald Trump’s appointees and facing an unavoidable political crunch every time.
The Missouri senator can ill-afford to oppose too many of the new president’s choices — not in a state that swung solidly to the real-estate tycoon by 19 points in November. McCaskill will need some of those votes when she runs for re-election next year.
And if she approves too many of them? Well, there goes McCaskill’s Democratic base.
That’s what you get for representing a swing state that doesn’t swing quite like it once did.
So far, she has backed five appointees and opposed five others, with a few hard choices still to come. The two big ones ahead are Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court and conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama for attorney general.
McCaskill has been mum on Gorsuch. On Sessions, she said this week that she has made up her mind, but she wasn’t willing to reveal her decision.
Her scorecard contrasts sharply with that of Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who has announced that he’s opposing — count ’em — eight of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, including Sessions, Rex Tillerson for secretary of state (McCaskill was a “no” on Tillerson, too) and Betsy DeVos for education secretary (McCaskill also is a “no,” and enthusiastically so, she said in an interview).
Of Tillerson, she said, “I thought he was duplicitous” when he said he didn’t know ExxonMobil’s position on economic sanctions against Russia even though Tillerson was chairman and CEO. “Phony baloney,” she said.
On DeVos, who may not gain any Democratic support, McCaskill said opposing her was easy because of the nominee’s lack of support for public schools and the impact that would have on rural Missouri.
She’s also opposing Steven Mnuchin for treasury secretary (McCaskill grilled him over Trump’s personal debts to other nations), Tom Price to head the Department of Health and Human Services and Scott Pruitt for the Environmental Protection Agency.
When McCaskill can stomach Trump’s picks, she sometimes trumpets that support in news releases. She said she had no trouble backing Gen. John Kelly as secretary of Homeland Security and Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense. She has worked with both.
“Party labels shouldn’t get in the way of good public service,” McCaskill said in her statement.
She also supported two other members of Trump’s national security team: Mike Pompeo, the former Kansas congressman, for CIA, and Nikki Haley for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. And she backed Elaine Chao for secretary of transportation.
McCaskill said she doesn’t feel like she’s walking a tightrope. Her decisions are based on the merits, not politics.
“No matter how I vote, half the people are mad,” she said.
Of her re-election in 2018, McCaskill once again labels herself the underdog. She knows she’s got a target on her back. Vulnerable, she is.
“What else is new?” she said.
One thing that’s new is the tough-guy approach to politics that won Trump the presidency. Does McCaskill’s middle-of-the-road philosophy still sell? It might. Consider all the chaos that is Trump and his aide, Steve Bannon.
Consider history that suggests that out-party almost always does well in a new president’s first mid-term election.
And note that while Trump won Missouri by 19, incumbent Republican Roy Blunt won re-election over Democrat Jason Kander by just three. All that suggests that McCaskill’s gig may not be up.