Former U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill and John Danforth discuss ways of making politics less toxic. On stage are (left) Stephens College President Dianne Lynch, moderator, and Claire Shipp, executive director of the associated students of the University of Missouri, who posed questions (photo by Terry Ganey).
COLUMBIA — Two former Missouri senators believe it would be a good thing for democracy if everyone went out to lunch with someone who holds a different political view.
“Take a Republican to lunch and don’t talk politics,” suggested John Danforth, a Republican. “Find someone who doesn’t agree with you, and treat that person as a human being.”
Danforth appeared on screen Monday night beside Democrat Claire McCaskill, and together they tried to suggest ways to restore civility to politics.
“Demonizing the other side has become more common than working together,” McCaskill said. “It was headed that way, but Donald Trump broke a lot of norms. His success has people emulating him.”
While agreeing that the toxic nature of politics was a big problem for the country, the two former senators suggested solutions depend on each individual. For the nation to hold together despite its differences, mutual respect must be shown by each person despite political views.
“We have to learn to respect one another as human beings regardless of political views,” Danforth said.
As examples, both McCaskill and Danforth pointed to the bonds they developed in the U.S. Senate with colleagues from across the aisle. While they voted on opposing sides, McCaskill said she and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt ”are best friends.” Danforth recalled that despite policy differences, he had a special working relationship with the late Missouri Democrat Thomas Eagleton.
At one point, Danforth referred to his support for the controversial nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court, a process he described as “absolutely gruesome. It was agony to him and me.” He remembered Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland, coming to him and sitting next to him and saying, “How are you doing?”
“That’s humanity,” Danforth said.
McCaskill and Danforth spoke for an hour during a Zoom conference arranged by a group called the Unnamed Committee of Boone County for Open Minds in Politics. The bipartisan committee evolved from months of discussions between members of the Boone County Democratic and Republican clubs.
Earlier the group hosted two smaller events on elections and local government budgets. Monday night’s discussion, “Show Me the Way: How to Work Across the Aisle,” was hosted by Stephens College in Columbia with President Dianne Lynch serving as moderator. Neither Danforth nor McCaskill were paid for their participation.
Danforth served three terms in the Senate from 1976-1995. He now practices law in St. Louis. McCaskill was the first woman elected to the Senate from Missouri. She served from 2007 to 2019. She is now a political commentator on cable television.
The pairing of Danforth with McCaskill held a special irony. To his everlasting regret, Danforth boosted the candidacy of Republican Josh Hawley, the man who defeated McCaskill for the Senate seat in 2018.
“I was the moderate,” McCaskill said Monday night. “People who supported Hawley were surprised at what they got.”
It was a pointed reference to Danforth.
Now there’s a slate of far right conservatives running for the Republican nomination to succeed Blunt. And Danforth was talking about them during his remarks on campaigning.
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, can be seen on a campaign commercial for Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a candidate for the nomination. Cruz says repeatedly that Schmitt will “fight” in Washington.
The Republican candidates sound the same, Danforth said. “They constantly use the word ‘fight.’”
Danforth is suggesting an alternative for who should represent Missouri in the U.S. Senate. He is pushing a plan for a moderate conservative to run as an independent and who would caucus with Republicans. He referred to the plan again Monday night, saying it would help “hold the country together and give people in Missouri the chance to have an impact nationally.”
In suggesting his plan, Danforth says both political parties represent the extremes. But McCaskill said the “candidates on the Democratic side are not extreme.”
McCaskill and Danforth agreed that elimination of gerrymandering of congressional districts and reforming the voting system to rank candidates would help generate interest in elections. And McCaskill predicted the formation of a third party “in the next couple of cycles.”
“I’m not giving up on this democracy,” McCaskill said. “But it’s on the ropes right now. Why are those who demonize others so successful?”
According to Bob Schreiber of the Boone County Democratic Central Committee, about 50 people were on hand for the Zoom session in Stephens College’s Windsor Auditorium, and another 80 watched from home. He said the session was also viewed at campus watch parties at Stephens College and the University of Missouri.
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