Claire McCaskill is the senior United States Senator from Missouri, serving in her seat since 2007. She was previously the State Auditor of Missouri and a member of the State House of Representatives. Ranked as one of the most moderate voices in the Senate, McCaskill has been a leading voice on a collection of issues, most notably military sexual assault and agricultural sustainability policy. She sat down with The Gate recently to discuss why "moderate" and "reasonable" mean the same thing these days, and why it's important for her female colleagues to work in unison.
The Gate: You’ve ranked as a moderate in the Senate. Why is it harder to have that label in Congress today?
McCaskill: Because there are so few moderates, particularly in the House of Representatives. The way lines have been drawn, districts have gotten safer and safer for the party that holds them. In the Senate, we’re always going to have some moderates, because there are states that can’t make up their minds. Missouri is one of those states. As long as I’ve been in the Senate there’s been one Republican and one Democrat representing our state, which probably accurately reflects my state.
Gate: In Congress today, how does the label “moderate” square with the words “reasonable” and “compromising”?
McCaskill: I think they’re fairly synonymous now. I think there was a time when moderation might have been not as reasonable. But now it’s very reasonable because the extremes are so far out there. We really have, with the Tea Party really bursting onto the scene in a surge-like way in 2010, had this whole new breed of elected officials in Washington that moved the center to the right. So I think moderation is certainly reasonable now because the center is skewed right, as opposed to being skewed left.
Gate: On both sides of the aisle, why is it less fashionable to be center-oriented?
McCaskill: The politics of running for elections means the people who give money to campaigns--they feel strongly. Not a lot of moderates are holding fundraisers; not a lot of moderates are calling my office expressing their opinions. The loudest voices, and the voices that participate most fully in the process, are the ins of the party, the extremes of the party. They’re the ones who are really passionate, so it’s easy to focus just on your “base” and forget about that wide swath of voters in the middle who are perfectly capable of voting for either party. My state is a perfect example: you can’t win an election in my state with just Republicans or just Democrats. You have to win the independent voters, or you can’t win statewide.
Gate: You’re currently part of the biggest group of women to serve in the Senate in its history. What approaches have been most effective for you in seeking gender-based social reforms?
McCaskill: The House tried at one point in 2011, and some extent 2012, to use funding for Planned Parenthood, for example, in some of the budget negotiations, and the women really solidified around that. Funding for women in the health care bill, in that now it’s not a pre-existing condition to be a woman, requiring that there’s maternity care in insurance policies. There have been a number of issues like that where we have weighed in in a unified way. We can really move the needle if we’re all together, so it has made some impact, and I think we all get along pretty well, and we try to set a good example for our male colleagues: that you can talk and trust and maybe reach some kind of compromise.
Gate: Since you have been at the forefront of dealing with sexual assault in the military, how would you address women today interested in joining the military but horrified by the potential of a system that has failed to protect them?
McCaskill: I’d say it’s much better today than it was ten years ago. Just like the changes in our civilian criminal system, these changes are now being brought to bear. Reporting is way up, by 50% this year, because I believe the women are now realizing that we’re giving them more support, more advice, more respect and deference. I think we’ve gotten the attention of the military leadership on this issue. And this is an issue that frankly, if you just look at conviction, the conviction rate in the military is higher than in the civilian criminal system. This is a crime that is always going to be under-reported, because women don’t want to talk about the most painful part of their lives that they want to keep deeply private and deeply personal. I guess what I would say to them is: it’s better, and with the reforms we’re going to pass, where every victim will have their own lawyer, and have choices, and instead of her being moved out of the unit, the perpetrator is moved out of the unit. Probably a dozen significant reforms that will go in as a result of our work this year is really going to make a difference for them. And we need women in the military, because the sooner we have women at the top levels of leadership in the military, the sooner this problem will be solved once and for all.