The title of this column is a question that kept popping into my head during Missouri’s gubernatorial campaign.
That question repeatedly was asked by fictional President Jed Bartlet in the TV series West Wing of two decades ago. Bartlet used that question to cut off meandering conversations by his staff that went nowhere. To one aide, Bartlet explained “it means I’m ready to move on to other things.”
As Missouri’s gubernatorial campaign seemed more dominated by attacks than specific, positive proposals for the next four years, I pondered when the campaigns would move on to “other things.”
There are some pretty major “what’s next” questions facing Missouri that were not fully answered.
Those questions include implementation of voter-approved Medicaid expansion; the economic impact from COVID-19; the likelihood of a possible crisis-load of patients because of COVID-19, violent-crime rates, and a potential funding shortfall for education.
Add to that list the secretly-funded attack ads that increasingly dominate Missouri’s campaigns.
Those are just a few of the “what’s next” questions facing the state’s governor.
Democrat Joe Biden’s victory for president adds a wrinkle to the West Wing question because of his focus on specific issues for his future administration. For example, will Biden’s call for face mask requirements have any impact on Gov. Mike Parson who continues to reject mask mandates?
Will Parson place a greater emphasis on police race relations in his law enforcement proposals given Biden’s election outreach to Blacks?
Another “what’s next” question involves style.
Will Biden’s history of seeking compromises and his repeated promises to work across party lines have any impact on Republican Parson’s approach to Democrats in the Missouri General Assembly?
On one hand, there’s no political pressure for Parson to change his approach. Missouri voters handed large majorities to all five Republican statewide office holders on the ballot. Republicans will continue to hold commanding majorities in both the Missouri Senate and House.
So, unlike Biden, there’s less pressure on Parson to reach across the aisle to pass his legislative goals.
Beyond that, Parson’s agenda reflects the values of a deeply committed conservative as a rural farmer who had been a former sheriff and U.S. Army police officer.
That’s quite different from Biden whom some Democrats have criticized as being too moderate.
On the other hand, while serving in the state Senate Parson won a major victory by seeking compromise.
The issue involved regulation of “puppy mills.”
Animal rights advocates had won statewide approval in 2010 for a measure providing protections for animals with stiffer penalties for violations. Pet store owners complained it could put them out of business. Farmers warned it could impact livestock practices.
Parson crafted a successful legislative compromise.
Although his plan won only a few votes from legislative Democrats, it was enough of a compromise that it was signed into law by the Democratic governor, Jay Nixon.
Another show of party independence by Parson came in 2015 when he delivered an emotional attack on the Missouri Senate floor against a demeaning political ad ridiculing Republican State Auditor Tom Schweich’s physical stature that ran just before Schweich’s suicide.
Schweich had been challenging other Republicans for the GOP nomination for governor when the ad was aired.
“I will no longer stand by and let people destroy other peoples’ lives using false accusations and demeaning statements all in the name of money and winning elections,” Parson told the Senate.
While Parson has avoided the tactics taken against Schweich, including a whispering campaign about the deceased auditor’s religion, Parson has embraced a somewhat strident and divisive tone since he took over from disgraced Gov. Eric Greitens.
That tone was demonstrated by signing into law abortion restrictions even in cases of rape or incest.
Parson’s anti-crime package for this fall’s special session was so divisive that major provisions failed to clear a legislature controlled by fellow Republicans.
Just weeks later, he presented to a second legislative special session a measure that would protect businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits that sparked immediate opposition from the House Democratic leader.
If there is going to be something “next”, Parson’s next major opportunity could be his State of the State address to the Missouri General Assembly in early January.
(Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970).