Missouri’s governmental and political discourse on several major issues has descended from words of inspiration into hateful partisan and ideological rhetoric that leaves little room for compromise.
The hateful language we have heard from the Senate congressional redistricting filibusters and the objections from women senators about the animosity is just one example.
“I pleaded with fellow senators to put the pettiness and self-interest aside and to get to work. I told my colleagues the posturing and grandstanding has got to stop,” Rep. Holly Thompson Rehder, R-Scott City, wrote in a recent column.
It is so different from when Gov. Kit Bond and Attorney General John Danforth, both Republicans, won bipartisan approval for sweeping ethics reform and consumer protection packages by stressing inspirational positive visions for the state. Although Danforth once gently chided Bond for being too negative about his Democratic opponents, both men stressed positive arguments rather than attacks.
It was such a different era from today in which partisan attack has become a driving force on some major issues.
Opponents of the House-passed congressional redistricting map that likely would retain the current lineup of two Democrats and six Republican Congress members repeatedly have attacked the House plan as the “Pelosi map.”
Why not a more inspiring debate about the changes a GOP-controlled Congress might make?
Opposition to mask and vaccine mandates have dominated much of the recent attention of both the legislature and the state attorney general. But for all the attacks about “COVID tyranny,” I’ve heard few inspiring words from elected officials encouraging voluntary vaccinations and use of masks as a means to defeat this horrid virus.
The resignation of the state Health Department director demonstrates the danger of that approach.
Don Kauerauf’s nomination to continue as the state’s top health official generated a storm of attack for his COVID-19 statements. In his confirmation hearing, he made it clear he did not endorse mandates. But his sin was that he encouraged vaccinations.
The Missouri Independent cited extensive communication from Kauerauf to the governor’s administration about the false accusations.
“You’re fighting stupidity,” responded a governor’s staffer, Alex Tuttle.
Ultimately, Kauerauf resigned when the Senate took no action on his nomination.
Gov. Mike Parson then issued an angry statement attacking the Senate’s confirmation hearing as “disgraceful” and “an embarrassment to this state and the people we serve.”
What was missing was an inspiring public campaign by Parson to defend his department director against the attacks before it became too late.
Medicaid is another example of missing inspiration.
Although Parson included funding for voter-approved Medicaid expansion in his budget recommendations, he has not engaged in an inspiring public campaign about expansion. Granted, funding Medicaid expansion has faced overwhelming opposition from Republican legislators.
But not too many years ago Republican Bond had lobbied for Medicaid expansion. Beyond that, a significant number of nursing homes with residents covered by Medicaid are located in Missouri’s Republican rural areas.
If you think this column is an exaggeration, when was the last time you read or heard a state government official seeking to inspire our state on a major issue that did not have a political advantage?
When was the last time you can remember significant members of the party in power in Missouri government voicing inspiring arguments for something that lacks conservative support.
There have been exceptions such as the apologies voiced on the Senate floor by Sen. Mike Moon for wearing overalls in the Senate and Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz for briefly stripping Moon of his committee assignments. It was a rare, but inspiring “Kumbaya” session in Missouri’s Senate.
Later, I heard an inspiring House debate from both sides about requiring hospitals to allow a relative or friend to visit a patient. There were heartfelt arguments about the importance of seeing a dying relative versus the potential infection danger to the facility staff and patients from a visitor.
Earlier that day there were inspiring bipartisan arguments in support of a bill to establish a program to allow a child born by an imprisoned mother to stay with the mother.
I so wish the rhetoric on the bigger issues facing our state could be just as inspiring and respectful.
As for me, I was inspired to write this column by Robert Caro’s latest book about Lyndon Johnson. As a Senate leader from Texas, northern Democrats and Blacks feared Johnson was a supporter of institutional racism.
But when he became president after John Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson emerged as a leader for civil rights legislation which he succeeded in getting passed into law.
(Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes).
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