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Government, Politics & Issues

Nixon, McCaskill embrace political roles in facing GOP: he's good cop, she's not

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 6, 2010 - As Missouri Democrats prepare for this fall's tough elections, their two top officials -- Gov. Jay Nixon and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill -- appear to be embracing opposite roles.

Call it "'good cop-bad cop."

Good-cop Nixon carefully avoided any broadside attacks against Republicans during his remarks at Saturday's brunch for this weekend's Democrat Days in Hannibal, the annual kickoff to months of regional Democratic gatherings.

Instead, the governor emphasized his quest for bipartisanship. Referring to the Republican-controlled Legislature, Nixon observed, "We try to work together. We try to move Missouri forward."

Later, when pressed by reporters, the governor declined to respond to recent jabs from Republican legislators, saying instead that GOP leaders in the Capitol are "serious, hardworking people."

The governor volunteered that he sought to avoid the overt partisanship evident in Washington. "The national tone is way too strident," Nixon said.

Contrast that with Saturday's brunch performance of bad-cop McCaskill. She reveled in thrusting the verbal knife.

The senator ignited repeated cheers from the packed ballroom as she repeatedly criticized Republicans in Congress and the Missouri Legislature for deriding federal spending at the same time that they eagerly collect the government cash.

"I get dizzy trying to keep up with all the hypocrites," the senator said. She contended that the nation's economic problems were tougher to tackle when national Republicans are "sowing the seeds of mistrust, anger and misinformation."

McCaskill also took after U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Springfield, the best-known Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, calling him "the ultimate insider."

"When you look up 'Washington Insider' in the dictionary, it has Roy Blunt's picture," McCaskill said, touching off laughter.

She offered effusive praise for Blunt's chief Democrat rival, Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who McCaskill portrayed as a political moderate unfairly miscast by Republicans as a liberal.

The opposing Nixon-McCaskill approaches don't stop with a political brunch. It appears both are taking different views to campaigning this fall.

Although titular head of the Missouri Democratic Party, Nixon played down his political role when reporters asked him how much he'll campaign for his party's candidates.

While emphasizing that he will do his part to help fellow Democrats later this year, Nixon quickly added, "Quite frankly, I'm focusing on the responsibility of the office right now. It's a pretty busy job."

But McCaskill indicated that she expects to spend a lot of time on the stump. "I'll be campaigning for any Democrats who want me," she said. "I'm not going to back down from a fight."

Budget Woes Contribute to Opposing Approaches

Why the soft approach from Nixon, who once had a rough-and-tumble reputation in politics and on the basketball court?

In fact, at the Democratic Jefferson-Jackson Dinner last spring, the governor touched off GOP complaints over his partisan speech that blasted Republicans and exhorted Democrats to take back control of the Legislature.

The explanation for his change in tone may well boil down to one issue: Missouri's budget.

Nixon is in the midst of negotiations with Republican legislative leaders on how best to deal with continued declines in state income.

He already had made more than $900 million in state budget cuts during the current fiscal year, because the state's income is running close to 13 percent below last year's tallies. Nixon said Saturday he might have to make $50 million more before the financial year ends on June 30.

The bigger headaches, he emphasized, are the budgets for the 2011 fiscal year, which begins July 1, and 2012.

Nixon acknowledged Saturday that another $500 million will need to be trimmed from the proposed 2011 budget his administration has submitted to the Legislature.

He said that productive discussions are underway with Republican legislative leaders on how best to "restructure, resize, reshape our state's government."

Which may explain why Nixon praised Republican leaders in both chambers as "folks who understand what we have to do."

In fact, the governor plans to unveil more details on the proposed changes in state government next Thursday on predominantly Republican turf in Springfield, Mo.

Meanwhile, McCaskill did note in interviews Saturday that she has engaged in cooperative efforts with Republican colleagues on how best to rein in federal spending and address the huge deficit.

But she then shifted her focus to display plenty of impatience with the Senate process that requires 60 votes from the chamber's 100 members before most bills can proceed.

McCaskill largely blamed Republicans for slowing down or blocking legislation that she supports, such as the Senate-approved version of the health-care changes lately attracting most of Washington's attention.

With Nixon playing good-cop, it also apparently has fallen to McCaskill to also take on Republicans in Jefferson City.

She said Saturday that she was making no apologies for the letter she recently wrote to the Missouri Republicans in charge of the Legislature, in which she asked them if they wanted her to block any more federal stimulus money from going to Missouri and other states. McCaskill explained she was tired of all the GOP rhetoric and resolutions in Jefferson City complaining about all the federal money and, in some cases, seeking to exempt the state from any federal mandates tied to the federal aid.

A large chunk of the federal stimulus dollars, she said, was "about saving state budgets" and preventing even deeper cuts in public education and health care programs.

"I think the people in Jefferson City would admit they haven't balanced the (state) budget with fairy dust," McCaskill said. "They've balanced it with federal stimulus money."

Note to state GOP leaders: That jab came from the Democratic senator, not the Democratic governor. Don't take it out on him.

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