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Sens. Heitkamp and McCaskill on Democratic mistakes and a ‘culture of failure’

Although this year’s midterms sent several new women to Congress, two prominent female senators--Heidi Heitkamp and Claire McCaskill--are preparing to leave Washington after losing bruising reelection battles. Judy Woodruff sits down with both to discuss voters who feel forgotten, the mistake their party made by focusing too much on gender and how President Trump will help Democrats win again.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The 2018 midterm election results lead to an influx of new female lawmakers coming to Washington, most of them Democrats.

    But, in the year of the woman, two prominent female senators, Democrats Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, are packing up their Washington offices this week and heading back to the Midwest after bruising reelection losses last month.

    In a wide-ranging and revealing conversation earlier today, they shared their thoughts on Washington's dysfunction, working with the president and the future of the Democratic Party.

    But I started by asking them if the sting has lessened any and how they're handling the setback.

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.:

    Listen, I'm a competitive person. And, obviously, it stinks to lose. And of course I didn't want to lose.

    But I feel great about what's around the corner, and I feel good about the time I have spent in the public eye. And I am definitely ready to move on.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about you, Senator Heitkamp?

  • Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.:

    Oh, I think I'm sadder than Claire. But she had six more years to do amazing things on behalf of the people of Missouri and this country and to be a role model.

    It would have been nice to get six more years. But, with that said, both of us have lost before, so we know what that feels like.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, while it's still fresh in your mind, Senator McCaskill, what lessons learned from this experience? I mean, I know you can't condense a whole campaign into a few sentences, but what…

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.:

    Well, this is Donald Trump's Republican Party. And Donald Trump camped out in my state.

    And he had some manufactured optics, but a real television drama around the caravan. The spectacle around the Kavanaugh nomination, regardless of whether you felt he should have or shouldn't have been confirmed, it was a spectacle.

    And that really amped the enthusiasm in my state.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about in North Dakota?

  • Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.:

    One thing that we discovered in North Dakota, where we used to have swing voters — people would vote — even if they were Republican, would consider voting for a Democrat who was successful and actually achieving results for the state — that dissipated.

    And, you know, early on in the campaign, my opponent said, she can never win because she's a Democrat. And I think that the election proved that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But I want to ask you both about some of the arguments you were making during the campaign.

    Senator McCaskill, you were spending a lot of time talking about health care, among other things, preexisting conditions. Why didn't that work or resonate enough with voters?

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.:

    I think it did with many voters.

    I think that's why we set a record for the number of votes that a Democrat's ever received in a midterm election in Missouri. But what resonated more with most people in rural areas was that they believe in Donald Trump.

    And they thought that, because I was a Democrat — and, frankly, Judy, one thing that we have got to be realistic about now is that long service and experience in elective office is not a positive anymore. It's a negative.

    And my opponent used that very effectively against me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Heitkamp, you were talking a lot about the tariffs. You have got farmers in the state of North Dakota, soybeans affected by the tariffs.

    You made that argument. It didn't — it wasn't enough.

  • Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.:

    Well, I think in part, because of the way soybeans are marketed, about half of them were already sold, and so it wasn't going to affect this year's crop, and we knew that.

    But I think, more importantly, with the trade aid package, people felt like he had their back, the president was going to make it right. And, you know, people trust this president in rural America, even against what is obvious to me their political interests or their economic interests.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You said voters in your state voted against their own economic interests?

  • Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.:

    Sure. That always happens.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But that says the voters don't understand what's going on. I mean, is that what you're saying?

  • Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.:

    Because we have different priorities.

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.:

    And, also, I think it's very unfair to ever look down your nose at these voters. They are frustrated. They have worked hard. They have played by the rules, and they're not doing as well as their parents.

    They don't feel like the dignity of their work is being respected or recognized. They think my party, our party has been too fixated on identity politics and cultural politics, and not enough on who they are and their frustrations and angst.

    And give the marketer-in-chief credit. He may have a tortured relationship with the truth, but he tapped into that vein of anger and frustration of a lot of working-class voters, particularly in rural areas.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what does this say about the Democratic Party? You two worked at times with him. There was no payoff there then for that, to put it very crudely.

  • Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.:

    I would say it this way: There was no payoff for results.

    I could go through North Dakota's economy and show the single most important things that happened in almost every sector, I provided leadership on and was able to deliver.

    What it tells you is that we have become incredibly tribal. You know, in rural America, people feel like they have been forgotten. But their concern, as reflected in this election, is a mile higher than that. It's about the cultural changes in the United States of America and how that basically reflects their position.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's talk just for a moment about the institution that you're leaving, the Congress, the United States Senate.

    How well is it working? Are the American people getting what they should be getting from this institution?

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.:

    You never want to kick something that you love in the teeth as you walk out. So I want to be measured in what I say.

    But the year I came to the Senate in 2007, we voted on 306 amendments. This year, we voted on 36. The power has been centralized in leadership. Bills are being written behind closed doors, instead of in committees. Giant omnibuses are being plopped on our desks, and the lobbyists on K Street know more about what's in them than we do.

    There has really been a disintegration of this notion that this is a deliberative body. We have got to get back to the notion that, if you're strong enough to be a United States senator, you got to stand up and take some tough votes, because we aren't going to solve tough problems unless we take tough votes.

  • Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.:

    Yes, I think that from the time that I got here, what I really felt is that we're in a culture of failure.

    And to add to what Claire just said, we're afraid to do really big things, because we're afraid of failure. And part of that is an inability of people to see a goal or a result as the purpose, as opposed to winning for your party or sticking someone in the eye on any particular issue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, how do you change that? Or can you change that?

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.:

    Well, I don't think it's going to change much as long as Mitch McConnell is the leader. You know, and I'm not saying our side's been perfect. We contributed to this kind of degradation of the notion that we could debate things in the Senate and vote on a variety of issues.

    But he really sees everything through the lens of, how do I protect Republican members of the Senate and how do I get more Republican members of the Senate? He is a very political leader. He is not a policy leader. He's very animated on how you win elections so that he can be majority floor leader and stay majority floor leader.

    Well, you do that by controlling everything, and by only allowing votes that are going to hurt Democrats and not hurt Republicans. So it is — it's kind of this, you know, tail wagging the dog that we got into in the Reid years, and now it's been taken to a new art form, witness Merrick Garland, in the McConnell years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's like a zero-sum game.

  • Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.:

    You only have power as a group. That is what the United States Senate is.

    And until you learn and figure out how to make things work as a group, you will continue to fail, and you will continue to reap the rewards in the public eye for that failure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do Democrats come back, in terms of the presidency and in terms of the Senate?

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.:

    Donald Trump is going to help. I do believe that.

    I do not think that he is a leader that has the confidence of the majority of Americans. I do think we're going to have to figure out a way to nominate a candidate for president who is inspiring and who is capable of convincing people that he or she is capable of getting things to change.

    And we have got to do the math, because we can't win the presidency just by very blue states. We have to win states like Florida and Ohio and Wisconsin and Michigan and, you know, compete in states like Missouri.

    So we have got to get back to having our elections be more about inspiring people that we can change things and less about identity politics.

  • Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.:

    Whoever gets nominated should have three characteristics. They should have character. They should have charisma. And they should have competence.

    And there will be a big competition to discover who rises to the top. But if you think that you can win without a charismatic leader, that's not true. It's got to be somebody who inspires people. But it's also — I think, in the juxtaposition of what we have right now, it has to be someone of very high character.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I'm talking to two women senators. There are a number of women who are looking at running. Is it harder for a woman to get elected president?

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.:

    It is, because we have never seen a woman in that role before, and I think there are — there are some barriers there.

    But, on the other hand, I think women have some advantages that men don't have. And so I think one of the mistakes that we make as a party is spending too much time talking about a gender thing. You know, we are a party of all kinds of people.

    And, you know, white men, white working-class men have traditionally been a huge part of our party. We have lost a lot of them. And one of those reasons is, we have had a tendency to talk maybe too much about gender.

    I want someone who — like she said, I want inspirational, charismatic. I want somebody who is competent and strong and authentic, and I don't care if they're a woman or a man.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Senator Claire McCaskill, we wish you both well in your future ventures. Thank you so much.

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.:

    Thanks, Judy.

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