TIME politics

The Price and Promise of Hillary Clinton’s Wobbly Summer

Hillary Clinton
Daniel Acker—Bloomberg/Getty Images Hillary Clinton, former U.S. secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, listens during her introduction at an event in Ankeny, Iowa, on Aug. 26, 2015.

Joe Klein is TIME's political columnist and author of six books, most recently Politics Lost. His weekly TIME column, "In the Arena," covers national and international affairs.

The Clintons have always been a high-wire act

On Aug. 18, on a bare indoor basketball court in North Las Vegas, Nev., Hillary Clinton held a press conference. It lasted 10 minutes, and it wasn’t pretty. Almost all the questions were about the controversy of the moment: her private email server and whether she used it to send or receive classified information. She seemed frustrated by the grilling, a bit testy, and at one point, when Ed Henry of Fox asked her if she had “wiped” the server, she flashed sarcastic: “You mean, with a cloth?” It was noted that she was wearing–insert giggles here–an orange (is the new black) pantsuit.

And then the extrapolation began: Clinton was on the ropes, she was slipping in the polls, she was obfuscating, she was being legalistic, a classic Clinton misdemeanor. Her trustworthiness numbers had gone south; she was losing in battleground states against people like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Donald Trump was actually beating her–by a slim digit–in Michigan. A white knight, Vice President Joe Biden, loomed to save the Democratic Party from this embarrassment.

Clinton has seemed rather wobbly this summer to a new generation of journalists–and citizens–who know only the myth of the Clintons: a brilliant, undefeatable political juggernaut. But the Clintons have always been a high-wire act. There have always been press conferences like the one in Las Vegas; there have always been crises like the server–indeed, some have been much worse. Many Americans first met Hillary Clinton when she seemed to dismiss women who “stayed home and baked cookies.” Many Americans met her for the second time in a 60 Minutes interview, defending her philandering husband and saying she wasn’t just some little Tammy Wynette standing by her man. The Clintons, in essence, were the Donald Trumps of their time: you just didn’t say, or do, the things they said and did, and survive in American politics. You didn’t have bimbo eruptions. You didn’t get caught trying to avoid military service. And for a time it seemed the press was right: in the spring of 1992, Bill Clinton had locked up the Democratic nomination but was running third behind George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot. He was pretty much a laughingstock, but three months later, Perot was toast and Clinton had rebirthed himself by naming young, dynamic Al Gore as his running mate.

So if you’re Hillary and you’re fretting through a hostile press conference in Vegas, here’s what’s going through your mind: Here we go again. Another cycle of dust and blather to be endured … and I sure hope I didn’t put anything stupid on that server … and if it turns out that something minimally or temporarily classified–my itinerary for the Pakistan trip–was erased, how much of a problem is that?

Smart politicians have a different sense of chronology than journalists. They are not concerned with “winning the day” or the week. They know that the memory of the public is an eyelash in the wash of time. When the Monica Lewinsky story broke, I watched esteemed colleagues predict the imminent defenestration of Bill Clinton. Clinton figured he could wait it out, and he did. By the time he admitted what the true nature of is was–and boy, was that embarrassing!–the public had moved on. Why? Because he had balanced the budget and the economy was rocking along, and we were at peace in the world. His approval rating was above 60%, far higher than those in the press and Republican Party trying to get him.

And so, if you are–say–Bill Clinton and you are looking at the state of your wife’s campaign on Labor Day 2015, you might evaluate it this way: Well, it hasn’t been a terrific summer, but it could have been worse. Donald Trump has been a blessing, soaking up all the attention and outrage as Hillary stumbled about trying to find her comfort zone. Bernie Sanders has been a blessing too. Yes, he’s been drawing big crowds, but he’s still calling himself a socialist–how silly and self-defeating is that?–while mostly taking standard liberal reform positions that Hillary can sand down and make acceptable to moderates. She’s already doing it on financial reform and college tuition.

If you’re Hillary Clinton, it’s good news that the left wing of the party has had a summer safety valve; it’s probably better news that Joe Biden is thinking about getting in. Biden will only split the anti-Hillary vote; and there are the legions of teachers, single moms, the blacks and Latino women who latch on to her ever more strongly when it appears she’s being picked on or held to a higher standard by men. Plus, there’s always the advantage that comes from wingnut overreach–the smug of war, the same sort of people who accused her in 1994 of complicity in Vince Foster’s suicide or making a fortune off of Whitewater (she lost money). They inevitably blow so much hot air into their balloons–think Benghazi–that they explode in their faces or whiz off into the ether, trivial and incomprehensible.

But does that mean there is nothing to worry about? Hardly. Hillary Clinton is a tough politician but not an especially artful one. There is the eternal problem of her standoffish paranoia, the instinct to walk out of the North Las Vegas gym instead of just taking questions until some marginally responsible journalist gets bored and decides to change the subject.

It is a mistake she has made throughout her public life, from Whitewater to the email server: Why didn’t she turn it over months ago? The same can be said–and more seriously–about the Clinton Foundation: Why did she allow it to accept contributions from foreign governments when she was Secretary of State? And why does she meet the press so infrequently if there isn’t, as she insists, something to hide?

I got a glimpse of how Clinton wants to portray herself in July, when she responded on the record to her husband’s contention that years ago, she didn’t want to run for office, that she saw herself as “too aggressive and nobody will ever vote for me.”

“True story,” she told me. “Bill always saw his future in politics. I saw myself as more of an activist than a politician, working for the Children’s Defense Fund … That’s how I thought I’d contribute.”

In the Democratic Party, the job of “activist” is nearly as sanctified as “community organizer.” It is a good move, in a primary, to identify yourself as such. But there are contradictions. Why does Hillary the “activist” seem so much a pol when it comes to saying yea or nay on the Keystone XL pipeline? And on the plus side: How many “activists” are willing to be as tough and candid with the Black Lives Matter group–the video of her confrontation with them, her refusal to gloss over complex issues of race and class, was her finest moment of the campaign. It was about the only time she didn’t seem rote.

But there have been too few fine moments, and a new stage of the campaign begins now. The GOP field is about to contract. Donald Trump’s 25% or so won’t seem so formidable–or newsworthy–when the race gets down to Trump plus Jeb Bush and player to be named later. There will still be the rush of garbage thrown her way. The press will assume the worst–she’s earned that over time–and the public will not take the trouble to hash through the complexities.

But the public will watch for the simple things: a clear answer on Keystone, the candor to tell young black activists painful truths. She can do this, if she chooses to–the mystery is why she doesn’t more often.

This appears in the September 07, 2015 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


The Iranian-Vote Carnival

Joe Klein is TIME's political columnist and author of six books, most recently Politics Lost. His weekly TIME column, "In the Arena," covers national and international affairs.

Focus on what happens once the nuclear deal goes through

With the nation’s attention fixed on cecil the lion and Donald the Loon, it was easy to miss an absolutely crucial speech that Barack Obama made about the Iran nuclear negotiation on Aug. 5, the day before the Republican debate in Cleveland. It was as clear and concise an argument for the deal as you will find–if you read one political speech this year, I recommend this one. But Obama hurt his cause with some needlessly partisan rhetoric on an issue that ultimately will need serious, nonbombastic attention from experts in both parties, whether or not the deal passes Congress. I understand the President’s ire. His opponents are talking ovens, holocausts, the eradication of Israel–as if Israel didn’t have the most formidable military deterrent in the region. Yes, it’s kind of lovely that both Republicans and Iran’s hard-liners oppose the settlement, but Obama should have looked past the passions of this moment. Yes, many of those against this deal were passionately in favor of the war in Iraq, but there are some very prominent Republican proponents of that war who quietly believe that this deal is worth pursuing under two conditions: If we can surround it with a tough and rigorous policy that addresses Iran’s aggression in the region. And if we can be very clear about the consequences to Iran if it cheats. But those Republican senior statesmen (and women) have been told by GOP leaders to withhold their (qualified) support until after Congress votes on the deal in September.

The Congressional vote on Iran this September has become your standard American political carnival–the foreign policy equivalent of the futile attempts to repeal Obamacare. For Republicans, it will be a referendum on Barack Obama. They will vote against it. For some Jewish Democrats, it will be a referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu and the not-so-subtle pressures being exerted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. They’ll also vote no. Indeed, a large majority in both houses will vote against the deal. Then the President will veto it. Then there will be another vote, on the President’s veto. I suspect that Obama will be able to cover the one-third needed to sustain his veto. The deal will go forward, but what then?

In the unlikely event that the deal is defeated by a veto-proof majority, Iran will have two choices: It can take the high road and say this deal was negotiated with the world and it will adhere to the agreement, thereby making America look globally inept and powerless, since every one of our negotiating partners–not just the Russians and Chinese, but the Europeans as well–will stick by the accord. Or the Supreme Leader can say, “See, you can’t trust the Great Satan. We’re going to build the bomb right now and protect ourselves.”

This does not mean inevitable war–that was another Obama overreach in the speech. If we could contain and deter the Soviet Union for nearly 40 years, we can do the same with the relatively minuscule Iranian threat. There are those who say that unlike the Russians, the Iranian regime is led by irrational religious fanatics–but the only time in this century an Iranian leader ever publicly mentioned the need for an “Islamic” bomb occurred in December 2001, when Ayatullah Hashemi Rafsanjani said a bomb was needed for an entirely rational reason: to deter the Israeli nuclear threat. The Supreme Leader has since issued a fatwa condemning the use of nuclear weapons, but there are those who point to the Shi’ite tradition of taqqiya–telling lies for the greater good–as evidence he can’t be trusted. Only a fool would deny that’s a possibility.

But let’s talk about probabilities: Obama will beat Congress, and the deal will go forward. The Iranians will have to comply in every aspect with the new regime–dismantle most of its centrifuges, destroy or sell almost all its enriched uranium, destroy the core of its lone plutonium reactor, fully comply with the inspection rules. It will have to do all this by March of next year. It will not receive a penny in sanctions relief until it does.

The U.S. and Israel need to send a clear–and unified–signal that we will insist on full compliance from Iran, that we will not tolerate any fudging and that we will take action to block any Iranian aggression in the region. On Aug. 3, 70 former leaders of Israel’s defense and intelligence community issued a statement saying that, like it or not, the Iranian nuclear accord is a done deal and the job now is to put forth every effort to enforce it. It would be nice if some leading Republicans said the same as soon as the veto is upheld. This is too important for the same old partisan frolics. But harsh, partisan talk from the President won’t help us get there.

This appears in the August 24, 2015 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Debates

An Entertaining Republican Debate

Like most debates, the first Republican debate was ultimately about character and presence, about who you are. It was an introduction—for many people, as opposed to junkies and journalists—to candidates they’ve never met before.

Many ridiculous and simplistic and just plain inaccurate things were said—and some pretty smart things, too—but they don’t matter. What mattered was how strong, competent, decent, clever the candidates appeared, and by that standard, there were more winners than losers on stage in Cleveland tonight.

Here’s how I saw them, in pairs.

The Plausibles

Jeb Bush: Seemed presidential, which is important. And he seemed informed, and nobody really took a shot at him, not even Trumpet. He gave strong, clear answers on education, on his record in Florida, on immigration. He faltered occasionally, but did himself no real harm tonight and he established that he will be one of the last of these myriad of Republicans standing.

John Kasich: Didn’t do as well as Bush, but had his moments, especially moments of human decency. He clearly has a record to run on in Ohio, a state that compels attention. Like Bush, he presents the most attractive face of Republicanism to independents and moderate Democrats. But he seemed undisciplined and scattered and too emotional, not yet ready for prime time.

The Young Turks

Marco Rubio: Was sharp and clear, attractive. He was also presidential, in that he always put his answers in a larger historic, national and economic context. He seemed to fade as the debate went on and his closing statement, his usual biographic pitch, seemed flat. He’d been missing in action the past two months, but was a real presence tonight. A positive debate for him.

Scott Walker: Did not distinguish himself. He didn’t show breadth or depth; there were times I forgot he was even onstage. He didn’t establish a strong narrative—and he has one in Wisconsin—or presence; he seemed a generic pol. He did have a nice line, about Russia and China knowing more about what’s in Hillary Clinton’s emails, after recent cyber-attacks, than the U.S. Congress does. (It occurs to me that Walker spent so much time trying to establish that he knows something about foreign policy—which he clearly doesn’t—that he neglected his main selling point to conservatives: his successful battle against the public employees unions in Wisconsin.)

The Wingers

Mike Huckabee: Won this pairing. He was fun, with a lot of clever one-liners. He didn’t do anything to hurt himself with his base of support, but he lost to Chris Christie on the entitlements debate: no one really believes that we can sustain the current Medicare system without reform. Social Security is another matter, and here Huck launched the unique and accurate, but rather overstated argument that a national sales tax, as opposed to an income tax, would raise more money to pay for entitlements because pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and “illegals” would pay in every time they bought something (obviously, those folks don’t pay income taxes now). He seems jollier having put on weight than he did as a diet-sized skeleton four years ago.

Ted Cruz: Nothing to write home about. He’s smart, but sort of sterile. I suspect that he’ll get mean as this goes on, especially against Bush.

The Fighters

Chris Christie: Is back. He was a strong and aggressive presence on stage tonight. To my mind, he won the harshest confrontation of the night, with Rand Paul, on the issue of unwarranted government data-mining. He talked about the need to go after terrorists with great conviction and it helped that his credibility came from a less-known part of his resume, working as a U.S. Attorney after 9/11. He also handled the question about New Jersey’s lagging economy with humor and aplomb. “You should have seen it when I got there,” he said, referring to his disastrous Democratic predecessor as Governor. I don’t know if there’s any room for him in this race, but there was certainly room for him on this stage.

Rand Paul: Got clobbered tonight, but not on the substance. His most important point in the debate with Christie was swallowed by audience noise and cross-talk: that whenever Christie went after a terrorist, he received a warrant to do so. But Paul seemed a sourpuss, whiny and obscure on stage. He will keep his libertarian following, but won’t break past it. He had the second worst performance of the night.

The Outliers

Ben Carson: Seemed very smart and decent, but I still have no idea what he’s doing here.

Donald Trump: Was dreadful, by any rational standard. But we are not dealing with rationality here. His supporters may have liked it. I’m pretty sure, though, that he didn’t win any new friends and a great many Fox News watchers may not like that he threatened Megyn Kelly. He seemed a nasty piece of work, his face set in a lower-lip-protruding scowl, like the mobster played by Steven Van Zandt on The Sopranos. But I think the moment that hurt him most was his slimy answer on bankruptcy. It was a tool he used to stay rich. He stiffed his lenders out of $1 billion, he laid off 1,100 employees at his Atlantic City casino. But hey, he’s livin’ the dream, right? Would it be too much to hope that this will be the beginning of the end for this twerp?

Finally, the Fox News interviewers—Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier—were excellent. They asked tough, informed and substantive questions. They followed up. They allowed the combatants to duke it out. They were extremely well-prepared and fair. They were not pompous or patronizing. Unlike some of the network anchors we’ve seen attempting to be moderators, they didn’t let their egos get in the way of the evening’s entertaining flow. It is not easy to do what they did. I can’t wait for Round 2.

TIME politics

Hillary and Jeb Bring Out Big Ideas as a Populist Circus Hijacks the Campaign

Joe Klein is TIME's political columnist and author of six books, most recently Politics Lost. His weekly TIME column, "In the Arena," covers national and international affairs.

The two candidates raise thoughtful points on issues like jobs

In the trumped-up train-wreck politics of the 2016 presidential campaign, two paths diverge amid the neon wilderness: the populist showbiz lane and a surprisingly substantive moderate track. Toxic populism gets all the ink, of course. We need not mention the main perpetrator’s name–he feeds on that–but even relatively mainstream candidates have offered irresponsible simplicities. Deport 11 million undocumented workers. Bomb Iran. Populism is what passes for citizenship among those who don’t pay much attention. It is, to actual democracy, what vinyl is to leather–too smooth to be real.

And yet even in the midst of July’s muggy rants, two substantive speeches were delivered by Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, which I’m sure will occasion yelps of derision from the entrenched loudmouth sector. But they were boat-rocking speeches nonetheless, and–ironically–they took on the three “Bigs” that populists of the left (Big Business) and the right (Big Government, Big Labor) rail against. Unlike the usual rage and clatter surrounding these subjects, the speeches were thick with detail. They provided a path to reform and unclutter our aging democracy.

Clinton did not begin her big economic speech on July 13 with a joke, or pleasantries, or an anecdote, as politicians usually do. She just launched into her thesis: Middle-class wage stagnation is a symptom of a greater, long-term economic crisis. The American economy has been profoundly distorted to benefit the financial sector–specifically, the short-term dealers and churners who have hollowed out long-term investment and aggrandized instantaneous casino gambling. This represents a clear break with Democratic Party orthodoxy of the past 30 years.

There will be those who say Clinton is merely “moving to the left” to counter Senator Bernie Sanders, who makes these arguments passionately and well. But Clinton is also moving with the tide of bipartisan economic research and with a growing realization–even among moderate Democrats who supported the party’s ill-fated alliance with Wall Street’s social liberals–that economic reform is needed, and fast. She has done her homework, as she always does. People who’ve sat in meetings with her say a surprisingly bold set of options have been discussed; even a stock-transfer tax, potentially a bombshell reform, is on the table. There won’t be splashy “Break up the big banks” rhetoric. Indeed, her most significant proposals are likely to be down in the weeds, among the invisible blandishments in the tax code visited upon Wall Street by eager Democrats starting in the 1980s. “Repeal SEC Rule 10-B-18!” isn’t a battle cry likely to stir the masses, but it could go a long way toward stanching the record flood of corporate stock buybacks, a form of insider trading that inflates short-term share prices at the expense of long-term value.

The weakest part of Clinton’s speech was the laundry list of traditional Democratic programs–universal preschool, better day care–that she has always favored. Some of these programs are worthy. But Clinton knows that existing government efforts in this area–Head Start, for example–are not very successful because they lack accountability; selling any more of this to a skeptical public is unlikely.

“More and more people don’t believe government works for them,” Bush said in his big speech on government reform. “I believe it can.” That is quite a brassy statement given the raging nihilism in his party, for which “Abolish Obamacare and the IRS” passes for reform proposals. Bush indulges in that sort of rhetoric from time to time. He wants to repeal the Dodd-Frank financial law (which certainly could use reform). Another Bush weakness is a tendency to go for gimmicks like his federal government attrition plan–one new hire for every three retirees, which is too broad-brush for serious consideration. But Bush did address the real problem, which is the absence of government accountability. He even broached the abstruse but wildly controversial, and supremely dozy, issue of civil-service reform. “There are a lot of exemplary employees in the federal government, but they’re treated no better than the bad ones,” he said. “And the bad ones are almost impossible to effectively discipline or remove.” This ironclad rule has crippled the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Veterans Affairs alike. He also offered serious lobbying reforms, which won’t please his donors.

We can argue about which speech was more worthy–both Clinton and Bush were playing to their party’s core constituencies–but both were addressing gut issues that are the true heart of the noisy malaise of left and right. This sort of substance is unusual in presidential politics. Full credit to both.

This appears in the August 03, 2015 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


Why the Iran Deal Is a Risk Worth Taking

I first went to Iran in December 2001. It was pretty strange: a well-educated, middle-class police state. Many women dressed in black chadors in those days. They would not look at, talk to or shake the hand of a stranger. Things were changing, though. I met with a group of young women in a coffeehouse, college students who wore their headscarves back, so their hair could show–a defiant political statement. They were totally hip to American youth culture; their parents all had satellite dishes. At the end, I acknowledged that we couldn’t shake hands, but … “No, we want to shake hands,” said one of the women. And we did. It was very moving.

I went back in 2009, for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rigged re-election, and was chased through the streets by the religious police, the Basij, who were riding on motorbikes and swinging truncheons. I saw pro-democracy mullahs getting their heads cracked open by these thugs. But my strongest memory was, once again, of women–this time, older and more religious women on the south (poorer) side of town. Most of them were still in full chador, but their behavior had changed drastically. They were talking to me, enthusiastically, as they came out of a polling station, dragging their silent husbands along. They were not just shaking my hand, but grabbing my arm to make a point, cracking jokes–the Iranians have a lovely ironic sensibility–guffawing. When the police came over to investigate what I was doing there, the women shooed them away. This was, clearly, an evolving and utterly compelling place.

I tell these stories–and there are many more–because in all the frantic argument bound to come over the Iran nuclear deal, there is a tendency to focus on the hard guys–the Supreme Leader, the Revolutionary Guards, the Hizballah terrorists supported by Iran–and it’s easy to overlook the significant role played by the proud, sophisticated and pro-American Iranian people’s intense desire to rejoin the world. It was their vote that brought the Hassan Rouhani–Mohammad Javad Zarif negotiating team into (limited) power.

Much of the opposition to this deal will come from Benjamin Netanyahu and his neoconservative friends. But Bibi is an unreliable narrator. He tells gullible American visitors, privately, that as soon as the Supreme Leader gets the bomb, he’s going to launch on Israel. “That’s what he tells all the Americans,” a leader of the Israeli intelligence community told me, laughing at the brazen idiocy of it–the idea that the regime would invite the reciprocal incineration of Tehran. But in May, I heard Senator Lindsey Graham use the same line at the Iowa Republican state dinner. I approached him later, and Graham admitted that what he was really worried about was Iran slipping nuclear technology to terrorist groups like Hizballah. That is a real worry–and it would be nice if the coming conversation took place in the realm of real worries.

There are risks to this deal, obviously. If the Iranians haven’t negotiated in good faith, it won’t be hard for them to cheat. Then again, if the Iranians are found to be cheating egregiously, it won’t be hard for the U.S. to do what the Israelis and neoconservatives have wanted us to do all along–obliterate their nuclear facilities.

But those are worst-case scenarios. And while it’s important to be vigilant, it is also important to be realistic. The reality is that the CIA believes that any plans Iran had to build a nuclear weapon were abandoned in 2003, when the regime saw the U.S. overrun Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction and was afraid Iran might be next. The CIA also believes that the Iranian hierarchy is tough but rational, and certainly not suicidal. Iran has behaved in a brutally stupid manner toward its former ally Israel, but it also has real enemies. The growing war between Sunnis and Shi’ites will define the region for the foreseeable future–and Iran has, at this perilous moment, chosen to forgo the most effective deterrent against its Sunni foes, including its unstable Pakistani neighbors, who have a nuclear arsenal and a history of radical coups.

In the coming months, we’ll undoubtedly be hearing a lot more about the risks of this deal than about the potential rewards. That’s both human nature and political-season demagoguery. A sudden alliance with Iran seems unlikely, but we do have common interests, and the U.S. will be stronger strategically because of this deal, no longer at the mercy of Sunni “allies,” who funded al-Qaeda, armed the Taliban and provided safe harbor for Osama bin Laden.

Yes, the Iran deal is risky. But we have been taking all sorts of bellicose risks since Sept. 11, 2001. Almost all of our military ventures have failed. So many lives have been lost. It’s time, finally, to take a risk for peace.

This appears in the July 27, 2015 issue of TIME.

Barack Obama’s Defining Moment

President Obama Funeral Clementa Pinckney
Joe Raedle—Getty Images President Barack Obama sings "Amazing Grace" as he delivers the eulogy for South Carolina state senator and Rev. Clementa Pinckney during Pinckney's funeral service June 26, 2015 in Charleston, S.C.

Amazed and grateful, the President sang

At the end of an astonishing week of political portent and national intimacy, the President of the United States–on center stage, anything but a lame duck–created a transcendent moment that will live in history. He sang. He sang an anthem, “Amazing Grace,” as deeply American as the “Star Spangled Banner.” He sang it in wonderment, at the end of a speech, a eulogy, that was a confession of faith. He sang it in gratitude, too, to a people–the descendants of black slaves–to whom he was only remotely connected but inextricably linked, because at a moment of horror, they had, once again, shown the rest of us the infinite capacity of grace. It was a moment of utter humility. Amazed by the grace of those whose families had been shattered, he could only sing.

We–all of us, but especially those of us who opine for a living–have had an awful lot to say about Barack Obama. We have been confused and disappointed by him. We have tried to psychoanalyze him: what was he really like? Was he aloof or merely dignified? Was he cold and analytical–a law professor–or an overly disciplined loner? He did not give out much beyond his inner circle, and it was a very tight circle. He was a mystery. He confounded those who sought to define him politically–in the very week that his “socialist” health care plan was upheld by a conservative Supreme Court, his quietly progressive trade policies–opposed vehemently by so-called progressives (including, sadly, Hillary Clinton)–were passed by a Republican Congress.

He was a conundrum. A black man from Hawaii with a white mother and a black father from Kenya, whom he didn’t really know. He was subjected to the most hideous calumny imaginable. He wasn’t American. He wasn’t really Christian. He didn’t go to church. He was Muslim. He was a secret terrorist intent on bringing the nation down.

But that was a profoundly Christian speech he gave in Charleston last week, and a profoundly American one. One can argue that the actions prescribed by Jesus in Matthew 25–to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the imprisoned–were not meant to be statist (as Obama argued in his speech), but personal. That was not his main point, though: In a moment that could have precipitated riot and anarchy, God had given us a vision of grace. It was the grace of the family members who forgave the alleged killer at his bail hearing. They had done unto him the exact opposite of what he had done unto them–a moment that distinguished the preachings of Jesus from those of Moses and Mohammed, both of whom sought vengeance from God. It was a moment that even we of little faith had to find gorgeous and holy. Amazing Grace.

And so the question was, Barack Obama asked, how do we respond to such a gift? “Grace involves an open mind,” he said and, “an open heart…That’s what I was thinking this week.” Grace had demanded grace: the official end of the aggrandizement of the confederate flag by public officials who had ignored the implicit racism and oppression in the banner in the past. This was good, but not sufficient, the President suggested. He did not call for a national conversation–he laughed at the futile persistence of such calls–but for a deeper recognition of “ourselves in each other.”

“Amazing grace,” he said quietly, almost to himself, at the end of the speech.

“Amazing grace,” he said again.

He had a choice here. He had given a fine speech, he could simply have repeated the words of the hymn, as they sat there, taunting him, on the page. He had always been a man of words, but words were not enough, not now, to show the pain and wonderment in his heart.

And so, he sang. And, amazed and grateful, we joined with him.

TIME In the Arena

Two Political Dynasties Relaunch with Pomp, Policy and Real Potential

Joe Klein is TIME's political columnist and author of six books, most recently Politics Lost. His weekly TIME column, "In the Arena," covers national and international affairs.

It was noted by–well, by almost everyone–that Jeb Bush didn’t include his last name in his new campaign logo. This was mistakenly seen as an attempt to dodge his heritage. Quite the contrary: last-name-dropping is a privilege available only to the dynastic or the notorious, as is the accompanying exclamation point. We have seen Hillary! as a candidate in the past, although for 2016, her entire name has been excised and cleverly replaced by a forward-pointing arrow projecting from the crossbar of an H. In any case, the truly shocking rebellion inherent in Bush’s logo was a matter of color. In the past, the Bushes have been people of navy blue: Yale blue, a “serious” color according to the founding Puritans. Jeb! is red, perhaps a subliminal reminder that he did not take his legacy to Yale but to the University of Texas. (Red is a next-door neighbor to UT’s burnt orange.) It may also have been an attempt to reach out to the red states, to remind his base that he was a conservative Southern governor. Or not.

The previous paragraph should be considered a parody of the current state of political analysis. There were more serious things going on in the strong and substantive announcement speeches made by Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. The most serious involved topics that the candidates elided. Bush did not talk about the economic distortions caused by the preferential treatment of the financial sector in the tax code; Clinton, surprisingly, did. Clinton didn’t talk about the distortions in effective governance caused by the rise of public employees’ unions and regulators; Bush did, which was not a surprise. The omissions should be at the heart of the coming debate.

Clinton didn’t call for breaking up the big banks or for a tax on financial transactions. But she hinted. And she made an important observation about the financial sector’s focusing “too much on complex trading schemes and stock buybacks, too little on investments in new businesses, jobs and fair compensation.” This was generally seen as a tilt to the “left”–and these are arguments that opponents like Bernie! (Sanders) have made. It is certainly a clear break from her husband’s bromance with the financial wizards. But it is more a rebalancing than a lurch, an acknowledgment that the tax code has been unfairly, and surreptitiously, rewritten to favor big corporations and hedge funders. Here’s an idea for H>: Why not lower the corporate-tax rate, which is paid disproportionately by small businesses that don’t have the lobbying power to generate loopholes, and replace it with a modest transaction tax that would hit the massive stock churning that adds nothing to the economy except fat bonuses for fatter cats?

Bush acknowledged part of the problem: “We will … challenge the culture that has made lobbying the premier growth industry in the nation’s capital.” Clinton acknowledged the paralysis of Big Government but not the steps that need to be taken to reform it. By contrast, this was the strongest part of Bush’s speech. He cited his clear record of taking on the labor unions and bureaucrats who had tied Florida’s education system in knots; he said he would do the same in Washington, which is something that Clinton cannot do, given the anti-reform straitjacket lashed to her party by the unions and various brands of “activists” who lobby for impractical regulations. Here’s an idea for Jeb!: Why not propose a pilot project for 21st century governance? Why not ask Congress to lift civil service job protections for the Department of Veterans Affairs? After all, government simply can’t be effective if it isn’t accountable–and it can’t be accountable if ineffective employees can’t be fired.

When I ask people about a Bush-Clinton race, the most common reaction is a grimace. Americans are wary of dynasties yet susceptible to them–going all the way back to that string of Virginia aristocrats and assorted Adamses who ran the country for its first 40 years. There is a certain similarity, given their policy differences, to the current Bush and Clinton iterations: both are policy wonks, both are reticent, neither is a sterling public performer. But both offer plenty of government experience, a much underrated commodity in an era too impatient for change and not wise enough for reflection.

Both candidates offer something fresh too. For Clinton it is, obviously, her gender. I doubt a man would have even thought to deliver this line: “You see the top 25 hedge-fund managers making more than all of America’s kindergarten teachers combined.” For Bush, it is his melting-pot family, the joy and strength it and his supporters radiate. Yes, they are boomer dynasts, but a contest between a woman and a neo-Latino could turn out to be a dynamic advance for American politics.

This appears in the June 29, 2015 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


How Rand Paul Has Already Changed the 2016 Race

Rand Paul NH campaign office opening
Rick Friedman—Corbis Republican presidential candidate and US Senator Rand Paul (R-TN) at the opening of his New Hampshire campaign office in Manchester, NH on June 5, 2015.

The candidate has proven chatty and thoughtful

Rand Paul has been a bad, bad boy. Just ask him. “I’m not very popular in Washington right now” was his opening line at a series of town-hall meetings in New Hampshire, two weeks after he had filibustered and, temporarily, crashed the bulk collection of phone data by the federal government. “I messed up their Memorial Day plans.” The line drew laughter and applause in the great state of New Hampshire, a flinty and skeptical province. Anything that gums up the federal machine is a good thing, it seems, even if it involves national security. “One of my colleagues asked, ‘What do we do if the authority to collect data lapses?'” he continued. “I told him, ‘Well, we could rely on the Constitution for a few hours.'”

More applause–but weaker this time. This was relatively esoteric stuff, and Paul had to explain himself: He’s in favor of using search warrants to collect the phone data of suspected terrorists, just not bulk collection of all the phone records of all the people, which he believes is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. He goes all the way back to the colonial lawyer James Otis, who fought unwarranted search procedures by the British. His audiences stay with him as he explains all this. He speaks plainly and well, without bombast or frills. He knows his stuff. But this is not the sort of thing Republican audiences expect from their candidates. It’s more educational than emotional. He doesn’t speak in any detail about Obamacare, immigration, Iran, abortion or gay rights.

By the time his 15-minute stump speech is over, he has delivered a tutorial about the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth and 10th amendments to the Constitution. “We Republicans won’t be successful as a party,” he says, “until we support the entire Bill of Rights as enthusiastically as we support the Second Amendment”–that is, the right to bear arms.

Rand Paul has a following in the GOP, just as his father Ron Paul did. But he’s a far more interesting candidate. Paul the Elder had cranky tendencies, railing against the Federal Reserve and in favor of hard currency. Paul the Younger has softer edges; he is an ideologue, but a supple and eclectic one–he talks about things his father never did, and his party doesn’t much, like the justice system in poor black neighborhoods (Sixth Amendment: right to a trial by jury). He tells his Republican audiences the outrageous story of Kalief Browder, a black teenager who was arrested in New York City for allegedly stealing a backpack–he claimed he was innocent, refused to plea-bargain–and spent 1,000 days in jail awaiting trial. Browder committed suicide in early June. “No wonder people in those neighborhoods are pretty angry,” he says.

Paul drives his fellow Republicans crazy with his foreign policy views, which are the opposite of the frothing militarism of the John McCain wing of the party. He’s not an isolationist, but not exactly a “realist” either. “We should arm the Kurds,” he told me, sipping water at a diner in Derry. “They’re about the only ones who are really fighting ISIS.” I pointed out that the Egyptians were fighting ISIS too, in Libya and Sinai. He considered this for a moment, then said, “Yeah, but they put thousands of people in jail for dissent.” It was a purist answer: he wasn’t ready to support an oppressive state, even if it was fighting on our side against a mortal enemy.

The current conventional wisdom is that Paul doesn’t have much of a chance to win the nomination–even though, according to a recent poll, he runs stronger against Hillary Clinton than any other Republican does. But his message is fresh and consequential. It throws a klieg light on the deficiencies of the two major parties: the mindless Republican war-silliness and the utter failure of the Democratic welfare state to alleviate intergenerational poverty. “I was on the South Side of Chicago a few weeks ago,” he said. “And the people there know the current system isn’t working. They’re about ready to try something new.”

But what? His “solutions”–like lower taxes on businesses in poor neighborhoods–are insufficient, and his libertarianism doesn’t begin to address the deficit of individual responsibility that plagues our communities, poor and rich alike. I’d love to hear what he has to say about what democracy demands from its citizens. Still, he is attempting something that few candidates will risk–an intelligent conversation, on issues that really matter. I’m thrilled he’s in the race.

This appears in the June 22, 2015 issue of TIME.
TIME politics

Democrats Get a Primary

Joe Klein is TIME's political columnist and author of six books, most recently Politics Lost. His weekly TIME column, "In the Arena," covers national and international affairs.

Why candidates O’Malley and Sanders will make it a race

It should be noted that Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, got off the first sledgehammer line of the 2016 Democratic primary campaign when he announced his can-didacy on May 30: “Recently the CEO of Goldman Sachs”—the huge investment bank—”let his employees know that he’d be just fine with either Bush or Clinton.” And here O’Malley paused for effect. “I bet he would!” He went on, as a ripple of laughter and cheers swept the crowd, “Well, I’ve got news for the bullies of Wall Street. The presidency of the United States is not a crown to be passed back and forth, by you, between two royal families.”

The zinger captured the current 2016 campaign zeitgeist on several levels. There is a yeasty popu-lism rising in both parties. Among the Democrats, it’s anti-Big Business; for the Republicans, it is anti-Big Government (and labor). There is also a rising discomfort with the aforementioned royalist candidates, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. Bush’s relatively moderate conservatism separates him from the pack temperamentally, but he is hardly the front runner at this point. No one is. Clinton is very much the presumptive Democrat, but not a very dynamic or compelling one. Indeed, the entry of O’Malley and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders into the race during the last week of May produced something of an energy jolt among Democrats, who have a preternatural need for a horse race, even when the horses are lame, and a long-festering desire for an ideological fight between left and center.

It should come as no surprise that Sanders seems to be catching fire among the leftish faithful, drawing big crowds and scoring double digits in an Iowa poll. He is a recognizable Democratic type–the prophet scorned, gushing rumpled authenticity. Usually, this phenomenon occurs when Democrats find themselves enmeshed in a foolish war: Eugene McCarthy in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, Howard Dean in 2004. Sanders’ distinction is that he is an economic Jeremiah, pitchforking the depredations of Wall Street. This is fertile turf. It is a fight that has been coming since moderate Democrats began courting Wall Street donors in the mid-1980s. Bill and Hillary Clinton’s wanton sloshing about in the plutocratic pigpen of their foundation makes it a particularly fat target this time. Sanders flies commercial.

But the populist case against the Clinton-Obama economic policies has real substance as well. It is no coincidence that the fundamental distortion of the American economy, with the deck stacked to benefit the financial sector, also dates back 30 years, when Democratic Congresses began to slip pro-bank provisions into the tax code, reaching a peak during the Clinton Administration with the demolition of the wall between commercial and investment banking and the flagrant refusal to regulate exotic derivative financial instruments—which, in turn, led to the Great Recession.

Both Sanders and O’Malley would take specific action against the Wall Street giants. They would break up the too-big-to-fail banks; they would reinstate the Glass-Steagall rules that used to separate legitimate banking from casino gambling. And if O’Malley got off the best zinger of the early campaign, Sanders has the best policy proposal: a tax on Wall Street transactions, tiny enough to impact only the computer-driven churning that makes the markets more volatile than they should be. He would spend some of the proceeds on a $1 trillion infrastructure-improvement program that would create, Sanders estimates, 13 million jobs—another good idea.

This should be a bright line in the primary, the most important substantive issue facing Hillary Clinton: How would she reform the tax and regulatory codes that unduly favor the financial sector?

I went to an O’Malley house party in Gilford, N.H., on the last day of May and met Johan Anderson, 68, who had been a successful sales executive but is now working two minimum-wage jobs to augment his Social Security. He had been a Republican and a town official in Stamford, Conn., “back in the days when you could be a Republican and a human being”—that is, before the party’s rightward lurch. Now he was engaged in the ancient New Hampshire pursuit of candidate shopping. “I really respect Hillary Clinton,” he said. “She’s obviously very smart and experienced. But I wonder about her leadership abilities. She made a mess of her health care plan [in 1994], and she didn’t organize her last campaign very well [in 2008]. My heart is with Bernie Sanders. I’d love to vote for him, but can he win? O’Malley is young [52] and brings a real freshness and energy to the race.”

I’m not sure how many people like Anderson are out there: perhaps enough to make Clinton a better candidate, perhaps enough to give her a scare. But there will definitely be a Democratic primary.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

Read Next: Bernie Sanders Calls For More Democratic Debates

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This appears in the June 15, 2015 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME In the Arena

An Explosion of Hot Air

Joe Klein is TIME's political columnist and author of six books, most recently Politics Lost. His weekly TIME column, "In the Arena," covers national and international affairs.

The best GOP field in years begins an epic battle for the nomination to be replaced with something else soon

Nothing much is going on right now in the 2016 presidential campaign–unless you’re a Republican political junkie, in which case every day is Christmas or, perhaps, Halloween. Did you know that Donald Trump might actually run this time, instead of using our nation’s highest office to promote his reality-TV show? Or that the very former governor of New York, George Pataki, thinks he’s a candidate? Are you tremendously relieved that the GOP’s most persistent Dr. Strangelove–former U.N. ambassador John Bolton–has taken his hat out of the ring? I sure am. But that leaves 15 or more candidates either in it or circling. The great state of Iowa, which had a dozen wannabes speak at its annual Lincoln Day dinner on May 16, may lose its corn crop in the explosion of hot air. Given that a column is insufficient space to introduce you to the entire mob, here are some observations from a weekend in Iowa:

Jeb Bush, son and brother of other Bushes, is the Republican default position–if not quite the favorite to win. He is conducting a major thought experiment. It involves the proposition that a conservative who is not suffering from red-meat poisoning can win the Republican nomination. Bush has had tough times in recent weeks, mangling answers to inevitable questions like whether he would have gone to war in Iraq, but I watched him handle all sorts of questions at a town-hall meeting in Dubuque, and he did so with intelligence, patience–in the case of one persistent questioner who seemed to believe that the Gates Foundation was intent on wrecking the American education system–and fluency, including casual humor. He will spend the next year trying to convince Republicans that “he’s not so bad” and hope that, in the end, his opponents will seem worse.

Marco Rubio, the Senator from Florida, wasn’t in Iowa over the weekend, but he is the sort of guy Republicans would love to nominate. I suspect he may prove to be Bush’s most formidable opponent; next March 15, he and Bush will joust in Florida’s winner-take-all primary, and the loser will likely be eliminated. Rubio seems far more polished now than the water-gulping ninny who flubbed the Republican response to the State of the Union address in 2013. He seems to have done a lot of homework on the issues, especially foreign policy. A few days before the Lincoln dinner, he gave a very polished performance before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. His positions were stalwart neoconservative and, in some ways, nonsensical: Why on earth do we need more troops, aside from drone jockeys, cyberwarriors and special operators, in a world where set-piece battles have become obsolete? But he was quick. When the moderator, Charlie Rose, mentioned that Cuba’s Raúl Castro had joked that he was considering becoming a Roman Catholic again, Rubio said, “That’s gonna be a pretty long confession.”

Three other candidates impressed me in Iowa, for different reasons. One was Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, spectacularly defenestrated by her board. I’ve seen her speak several times now, and she more than holds her own in this crowd. She has a clipped, clear, efficient style, and more than any other candidate in the race, she really lays the lumber to Hillary Clinton. It should also be noted that Carleton Fiorina is a woman. She wore a dress to the dinner and addressed the women in the audience directly. A guy had recently told her that a woman was hormonally inappropriate for the Oval Office: “Can anyone think for a single instant that a man’s judgment was clouded by his hormones, including in the Oval Office?”

Unfortunately, Fiorina’s foreign policy appears to be as testosterone-addled as that of most of the other candidates in her party. The one exception is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who sounded unlike any of the other candidates in Des Moines, concentrating on his civil-libertarian opposition to the Patriot Act, which he may filibuster again. And while he stands with the others when it comes to economic issues, he does not brandish his talons when it comes to foreign policy–except against the warmakers. “Someone needs to ask Hillary Clinton–if she ever takes any questions–was it a good idea to topple Gaddafi in Libya?” Paul said. “I think it’s a disaster.”

And finally there is Lindsey Graham, who, till now, has been best known as an appendage of John McCain’s, flanking him at warmongering press conferences. The thing about Graham is that he’s a happy–no, hilarious–warrior. “The more you drink, the better I sound,” he told the Iowans, “so keep drinking.” He favors immigration reform, working with Democrats and calling drones to kill American jihadis. I suspect he won’t get lost onstage when the debates start.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

This appears in the June 01, 2015 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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