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Watch US senators' fiery farewell speeches

Senate farewell speeches are usually nostalgic and uplifting affairs. Not this year.

Posted: Dec 28, 2018 3:09 PM
Updated: Dec 28, 2018 3:20 PM

Sen. Claire McCaskill has some advice for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the incoming freshman who has rapidly risen from obscurity to one of the most well-known figures in the Democratic Party: Talk is cheap.

McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who's in her final days in office after losing her bid for a third Senate term, told CNN in a wide-ranging interview that her party must begin to focus and deliver on real issues to attract independent and white working class voters -- not pie-in-the-sky policy ideas, such as tuition-free college, that have little chance of becoming law. Her concern: Voters grow cynical after hearing campaign promises that never go anywhere, empowering forces like President Donald Trump to rail against Washington for failed promises, as he did in 2016.

Democrats, she suggested, should be cautious about the rise of politicians like the 29-year-old Ocasio-Cortez, who vanquished a Democratic leader, Joe Crowley, in her primary, and have vowed sweeping changes in policy.

"I don't know her," McCaskill said when asked if she'd consider Ocasio-Cortez a "crazy Democrat" like the ones she decried on the campaign trail. "I'm a little confused why she's the thing. But it's a good example of what I'm talking about, a bright shiny new object, came out of nowhere and surprised people when she beat a very experienced congressman."

McCaskill added, "And so she's now talked about a lot. I'm not sure what she's done yet to generate that kind of enthusiasm, but I wish her well. I hope she hangs the moon.

"But I hope she also realizes that the parts of the country that are rejecting the Democratic Party, like a whole lot of white working class voters, need to hear about how their work is going to be respected, and the dignity of their jobs, and how we can really stick to issues that we can actually accomplish something on."

And she concluded: "The rhetoric is cheap. Getting results is a lot harder."

In the interview, the blunt-speaking Missouri Democrat, reflecting on her election loss to Republican Josh Hawley -- a political novice whom she also referred to as a "bright shining object" -- also didn't mince words for the Republican Party.

While she warned that history "will judge some of my colleagues harshly that they didn't stand up to this President at some of the moments where he has been unhinged about particularly the rule of law," she also said that GOP senators have privately conceded they can't speak out against Trump because of backlash they'd receive from their base.

"Now they'll tell you, if it's just the two of you, 'The guy is nuts, he doesn't have a grasp of the issues, he's making rash decisions, he's not listening to people who know the subject matter,' " she said. "But in public if they go after him ... they know they get a primary, and they know that's tough."

She declined to single out individual Republicans, but when asked about Sen. Lindsey Graham and the South Carolina Republican's alliance with Trump, she said: "It's kind of weird to me, I don't know what happened with Lindsey."

"This is Donald Trump's Republican Party," McCaskill said. "Make no mistake about it."

As she sat back in her chair in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's hearing room, where she served as the ranking Democrat, she said of Trump, "I mean, he's almost the master of, 'I'm going to do so much stuff that's crazy that nobody notices crazy anymore.' "

One instance, she cited, in particular was when the rapper Kanye West spouted off on a wild, profanity-laced tirade in the Oval Office -- all in front of the television cameras.

"I mean, Kanye West was in the Oval Office M-F---ing on live TV," McCaskill said, seemingly perplexed. "I mean, think about that. That is crazy weird. Can you imagine would have happened if that happened during the Obama years? ... The lid would have blown off this place."

She added: "I think Fox News Channel would have gone up in some kind of spontaneous combustion, had that happened (during the Obama years). But it happens under Trump and it's like, well, just another day at the office. So there is a numbing that's gone on, that some of the craziest stuff that he says and does is not as noticeable because there's so much of it."

In Missouri, Trump's brash style and popularity with conservative voters helped turn the tide against McCaskill. He held multiple campaign events for Hawley, railing on McCaskill and castigating her as a far-left liberal out of step with more mainstream voters.

"He camped out so often in Missouri the last 30 days I figured he was building a golf course," McCaskill said.

In 2006, she eked out a victory against then-Sen. Jim Talent, helping Democrats take control of the Senate -- and in 2012 when then-President Barack Obama lost her state by 10 points, she pulled off a victory due in large part to the controversies of her Republican opponent, Todd Akin, whose campaign imploded when he downplayed pregnancies caused by rape.

This time, she faced a 38-year-old, telegenic Republican with little political experience -- something Hawley used to his advantage against the 65-year-old McCaskill, who has nearly four decades in politics.

"In most professions and careers, the more experience you have, the better, the more valuable you are to the people that you work for. In politics, not so much anymore," McCaskill said. "There was a sense that, maybe she has been around long enough."

What turned the tide, in McCaskill's view, was the raging fight over Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court. Trump's 1th-hour rhetoric against migrant caravans approaching the southern border only added to that, and said it amounted to "whipped cream and the cherry on top of the ice cream" to drive up GOP turnout.

But she contended that it was the fight over Kavanaugh, whom she voted against, that ultimately did her in.

Asked if she believed she would have won re-election had there not been a Supreme Court vacancy, she said: "I think it would have been much more likely."

As one of the country's most vulnerable Senate Democrats, McCaskill had been the subject of a furious onslaught by GOP outside groups -- namely a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Asked about her views on McConnell, she said she believes that "every decision" the GOP leader makes is based on whether it helps Republican senators.

"He is a very, very political leader," McCaskill said of McConnell. "This isn't somebody who is sitting around at night figuring out how he can move the needle on really important policy issues. This is someone who is figuring out how he can win elections and beat Democrats like me."

As her Senate term now comes to an end, McCaskill vowed "never" to become a lobbyist but said she will now use her style of "mouthing off" in her next line of work. She said she's not waiting to use her mouth now to give advice to her party as candidates line up to take on Trump in 2020.

"Donald Trump got elected partially because there was such cynicism that we can't get anything done here. And the way you get things done here is by reasonable negotiation and compromise," McCaskill said of the 2020 race. "Somebody who talks about leading in that direction is the one that can win places like Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and maybe even compete in a place like Missouri."

Asked if her colleague, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is weighing a White House run, could win in those states, McCaskill said, "I don't know. I think it's hard."

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