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.

TIME Republican

Energized Republicans Put On a Campaign Show in Iowa

Irreverence, optimism and Lindsey Graham's incest joke

DES MOINES—I’m a little worried about burying the lead here. Saturday night was the annual Lincoln Day dinner in Iowa, a major cattle call for Republicans who wish to be President. Twelve candidates attended. And Senator Lindsey Graham…no, wait.

The candidates ranged from very serious and plausible like Jeb Bush, who performed admirably, to has-beens (Rick Santorum), never was’s (George Pataki, the very former governor of New York, was there), to never-will-be’s (Rick Perry), to …to Lindsey Graham, who told a joke…no, wait.

As I was saying, the candidates ranged from Bush, to a soft-spoken and very accomplished surgeon named Dr. Ben Carson—whose slightly bemused presence seemed that of a Buddhist monk in a leather bar—to the inevitable Donald Trump, who was the only one to make a complete fool of himself: he announced that he, personally, somehow, contra the Constitution would—did I mention, personally?—slap—that is, without the Congress, and seemingly overnight, mind you—the Ford Motor company with a 35% tax on products imported from Mexico.

But Lindsey Graham, the Senator from South Carolina, came on like a cabaret act, encouraging the crowd to drink up, “The more you drink, the better I sound…” And then, after a series of energetic one-liners—this was like a post-modern deconstructionist version of a political speech—told one about his first case as a lawyer in South Carolina. It was a divorce case. “The husband asked,” the Senator said. “If we get divorced, can we still be cousins?”

Okay, it was somewhat bowdlerized. The version I first heard some years ago, was, “Can she still be my niece?” But still. Senator Lindsey Graham told an incest joke at a Republican Party dinner in Iowa, where the evangelical legions are assumed to be in control. In fairness, the 1,400 GOP activists assembled seemed more from the banker-businessman sector of the party, but still—I’ve been doing this for 46 years and I don’t think I ever heard a presidential candidate tell an incest joke before.

Actually, Graham—who was allotted 10 minutes, as were the other candidates—was wildly entertaining throughout. He ragged Iowa’s famously abstemious farmer-Senator, Chuck Grassley: “You know Chuck’s not paying tonight, or he wouldn’t be here.” He said he wanted to be President because “you get a house, a car and a plane.” He said that if you’re a jihadist who attacks us, “I’m not gonna call a judge”—a slap at civil libertarians—“I’m gonna call a drone and it will kill you.”

In the course of an evening during which every one of the Republicans decried Islamic terrorism without really saying what they’d do about it, Graham said he would put boots on the ground in Iraq and keep them there in Afghanistan. (Before tonight, he was better known for his bellicosity than his humor.) “How many of you think the Iranians want to build a peaceful nuclear power plant and how many think they want to build a weapon?” He said that those who believed the former “shouldn’t be allowed to drive in Iowa.” He also said he was convinced that as soon as the Supreme Leader got the bomb, he would use it against Israel. This is utter nonsense—and afterwards Graham told me he was more concerned about the Iranians leaking the technology to groups like Hizballah than a frontal assault on Israel (which would result in the almost-immediately evaporation of the city of Tehran, 12 million strong). But still, Senator, the ground rules are that you’re not supposed to say mega-scary things in public if you don’t really believe them.

I must say that Lindsey Graham is the cheeriest superhawk I’ve ever seen and while I’m pretty sure he won’t be nominated by the Republicans, I’m really glad he’s in the race.

As for the others, there was a pattern. They talked about an economy constrained by a nonsensical tax code and web of regulations; they talked about the threat of Islamic radicalism—and the seemingly more outrageous fact that the President refuses to call it that. There was much less anger and pessimism than in the Republican class of 2012. Rick Perry, the only one to attempt real churchified oratory, kept saying over and over again, with slightly scary fervor—an evangelist on Ecstasy?—how optimistic he was. And most of the others paid lip service to optimism—which used to be the true American religion—as well. (I should mention that Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie, who might have added even more juice to the proceedings, were absent.)

Rand Paul distinguished himself from the pack, as he almost always does, because he is different from the pack: he devoted much of his speech to the coming debate over the Patriot Act, which he sees as an infringement of First Amendment rights. And he launched a particularly effective attack on Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State: “Someone needs to ask Hillary Clinton if it was a good idea to topple Qaddafi in Libya,” he suggested, noting that Qaddafi has been replaced by “chaos,” with a significant slice of the (former) country in danger of falling under the control of ISIS.

OK, I’ll admit it: I was expecting a fairly endless evening of predictable and highly-processed red meat. But this was…fun. There is energy and irreverence—without the Limbaugh-Hannity bitterness—in this crop of candidates, although the field could certainly use some pruning. That will come in good time, of course. For now, though, I suspect Lindsey Graham is ready for Vegas…if not for the Nevada primary. He’s crazy good.

TIME Hillary Clinton

The Clinton Blind Spot

Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University on April 29, 2015 in New York City.
Kevin Hagen—Getty Images Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University on April 29, 2015 in New York City.

The former President's fundraising—for his family and foundation—could cripple his wife’s campaign

“You’re singing my song!” Hillary Clinton told students and educators at Kirkwood Community College in Monticello, Iowa, near the end of her first official event of the 2016 presidential campaign. High school students had been talking about how they were getting a leg up, taking college-level courses at the school and getting both high school and college credits for their work. One young woman said she was going to a four-year college next year and would be able to finish in two because of the credits she’d already accrued—thus cutting her college loans in half. A young man headed to Annapolis was getting a head start on the information–tech and engineering courses he’d have to take at the U.S. Naval Academy. Others, less skilled, were starting a vocational path while still in high school, taking courses in auto mechanics and welding that would make them skilled and officially credentialed craftspeople, with plenty of jobs waiting for them. “This is a new vision, a new paradigm!” the candidate exclaimed, referring to the melding of high school and community college. “This is the kind of thing that can get people excited about our educational system again.”

It was perfect Hillary Clinton. She wasn’t faking it. There was no cynicism in the moment. I’ve been watching her hold similar conversations on several continents for nearly 30 years. She’s a wonk; she gets off on programs that work. And it seemed to me that this was a perfect way to launch her campaign, doing something she loved to do—something profoundly unphony—-promoting a program that could really help middle-class Americans. Who could possibly object?

Almost everyone, it turned out. Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal called it “the most inept, phony, shallow, slickily-slick and meaningless launch of a presidential candidacy I have ever seen.” Others were less charming. No one—at least that I saw—talked about the policies she was promoting in Iowa. It was all about the cynicism of the launch, of Hillary Clinton pretending to be one of the people. “You’ve got to be cynical about the Clintons,” said a young journalist I admire.

I was ready to push back against that. I’ve always thought that cynicism is what passes for insight among the mediocre. The Clinton I saw in Iowa was real. Sadly, though, we’ve been reminded in recent weeks that there is another, equally real Clinton. There are several, in fact. There is the Clinton who is cautious to the point of paranoia, who surrounds herself with sketchy sycophants and launches scorched-earth campaigns against anyone who would doubt her. There is the Clinton who adores her husband but—according to the book Game Change—believes she “cannot control” him. It was assumed at the time that she was talking about sex and keeping his occasionally impolitic opinions to himself. As it has played out, the real control issue was about money.

The charges leveled against the Clintons by Peter Schweizer in his book Clinton Cash, and confirmed by a raft of mainstream publications in recent weeks, cannot be dismissed as a right-wing hack attack. They are serious, though probably not criminal. The Clintons are too clever for smoking guns. The bottom line is that the Clinton Global Initiative was used not only to do great works around the world but also to enrich the Clintons. No doubt, there was a lot of self-delusion going on. Let’s take the case of Haiti, reported by Fox News. Bill Clinton was co-chair of a board to give out reconstruction contracts after the 2010 earthquake in that country. Some of the contracts went to Clinton Global Initiative donors, most of which were reputable and competent. A cell-phone contract went to an Irish businessman who had been a CGI donor; he asked Bill Clinton to make four speeches. The Clinton Foundation says several of the speeches were unpaid but acknowledges that contributions were made. No doubt, the lad was chuffed to be in the presence of Bill Clinton; no doubt, he made his contributions to the CGI in recognition of its excellent work. It is entirely possible that both men thought they were doing the Lord’s work. But their relationship also contained a friendly whiff of pay-for-play.

One of the most damning charges, if it turns out to be true—and I’ve not seen it disputed—is that since he left the presidency, Bill Clinton gave 13 speeches for $500,000 or more. He gave 11 of them while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State. He was, and is, her closest adviser. You would have to assume a high-mindedness that surpasses all understanding to argue that these speeches, and the generosity of their funders, had not even a subliminal impact on the mind of the Secretary. Perhaps the most egregious, confirmed by the New York Times, was sponsored by Russian oligarchs—Schweizer claims some of them had KGB ties—for $500,000 as Clinton Global Initiative donors were selling their uranium-mining company, including U.S. assets, to the Russians. I believe that the Obama Administration’s “reset” with Russia was more than a shell game to enrich the Clintons, but you have to ask: What on earth was Bill Clinton thinking when he took the $500,000 from the friends of Vladimir Putin? What was he thinking when he accepted the “honorary” chancellorship and untold amounts of money from Laureate International Universities, whose affiliate was receiving ever increasing millions of dollars in aid from the State Department while Hillary Clinton was Secretary?

There is more than the appearance of impropriety here. There is the appearance of plutocracy. There is the reality of platinum–level membership in the society of the rich and self-righteous, whose predatory business practices can be forgiven because they “give back” gazillions—call them the egregiously charitable. Bill Clinton has always been a creature of appetites, but he never lived high until he left the presidency. He’s curbed some of the old excesses—-no more McDonald’s; he’s a sleek vegan now—but replaced them with new ones. It is difficult for a poor boy to say no when all these nice, smart, high-minded people are throwing money your way. It’s hard to say no to a private plane. It’s hard to say no when a “friend” invites you to his vacation home, all expenses paid, to rest and relax after all that tough work saving the world. It is very easy to lose touch with real life, with proportion, if you don’t have an acute sense of propriety and boundaries.

In recent days, I’ve spoken with a bunch of Democrats about the Clinton mess. Inevitably, their first reaction is political. The Clintons were “sloppy” but probably didn’t do anything illegal. It’s “good” that this came out early, they argue; it’ll be forgotten by the time the election rolls around. She’s still a lock for the Democratic nomination and probably the presidency, it is said. And how much worse is this than the parade of Republicans crawling to Las Vegas to kiss the ring of the loathsome Sheldon Adelson, in return for $100 million in campaign -contributions—or the Koch brothers’ auditions? Isn’t this what American politics is all about now?

There is a moral distinction, however, between campaign-related moneygrubbing and the appearance of influence peddling. And in practical political terms, while the Clinton Foundation crisis may not prove damaging during the primary campaign, it may come back to haunt Hillary in the general election—just as Bain Capital did Mitt Romney in 2012. True enough, my Democratic interlocutors say, but there’s a lot of real enthusiasm out there for Hillary. She’s historic. She’s smart and moderate and experienced. She’s probably better prepared for the presidency than any of her rivals. Then I ask them: Let’s leave the politics aside; how do you feel about the way the Clintons ran their foundation? “Nauseated,” said one. “Atrocious,” said another. “It’s no surprise,” said a third.

And I suppose that you do have to assume the worst about the Clintons—“to be cynical” about them, as the young reporter told me. How sad. Their behavior nudges up against the precise reason Americans, in both parties, have grown sick of politicians. It’s near impossible for Hillary Clinton to go around saying, with a straight face, much less a sense of outrage, that the “deck is stacked against” everyday Americans when Bill’s partying with the deck stackers. Even if the appearances of impropriety were for good causes, shouldn’t the arrant naiveté of it all disqualify her from the presidency?

Well, maybe not when you look at the Republicans in the race, the anger and myopia that have come to brand their party. Wouldn’t Hillary be better than someone who’d blithely court more wars that can’t be won and shouldn’t be fought? Or someone who would “abolish” the Internal Revenue Service or allow “creation science” to be taught in the schools? That is the tragedy of this situation. Bill and Hillary Clinton have made policy mistakes, but for the most part they have been creative, judicious and sane in office. They are fine public servants. But now—because of their sloppiness and carelessness and tendency to lawyer the truth—the very best-case scenario for Hillary Clinton is that she might be elected President as the lesser of two evils.

This appears in the May 11, 2015 issue of TIME.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story, published in error online, incorrectly described the financial dealings between Bill Clinton and an Irish businessman who has been a Clinton Global Initiative donor.

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TIME Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton Begins Campaign Her Way in Iowa

Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on during a roundtable discussion with students and educators at the Kirkwood Community College Jones County Regional Center in Monticello, Iowa, on Apr. 14, 2015.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on during a roundtable discussion with students and educators at the Kirkwood Community College Jones County Regional Center in Monticello, Iowa, on Apr. 14, 2015.

MONTICELLO, Iowa — People ask: What is Hillary Clinton really like? No one knows all the private intricacies, and only a fool would speculate in a blog post. But I have watched her work for nearly 30 years and one thing I can say with confidence: the Hillary Clinton who began her presidential campaign in Iowa on Tuesday and listened carefully to a handful of people talk about the wonders of the local community college system is a familiar, uncynical and entirely credible character. I’ve seen her do the same on countless occasions in the past, in venues from Pakistan to Arkansas. People ask: What does Hillary believe? She believes in programs, both governmental and non-, that actually work. That is a very large part of who she really is.

“You’re singing my song!” she celebrated, toward the end of the hour-long meeting. High school students had been talking about how they were getting a leg up, taking college-level courses at the Jones County branch of Kirkwood Community College. They were getting both high school and college credits for their work. One young woman said she was going to a four-year college next year and would be able to complete it in two because of the credits she’d already accrued—thus cutting her college loans in half. A young man headed to Annapolis was getting a head start on the information tech and engineering courses he’d have to take at the U.S. Naval Academy. Others, less skilled, were starting an vocational path while still in high-school, taking courses in auto mechanics and welding that would make them skilled, and officially credentialed craftspeople, with plenty of jobs waiting for them. “This is a new vision, a new paradigm!” The candidate exclaimed, referring to the melding of high school and community college. “This is the kind of thing that can get people excited about our educational system again.”

But what about Benghazi? the folks at Fox might ask. She had nothing to say about that. (Perhaps because, as Congressional committees keep finding, there is nothing to say about that.) And what about this small-ball strategy in Iowa–why was she doing it? Why no big speeches, crowds, rallies? There will, of course, be tons of speculation. And what about those pesky emails? Well, those may be the product of another part of her personality — a less attractive, more secretive part — and the tragic desire to keep a “zone of privacy” may haunt her down the road.

But not today. Today was Hillary Clinton’s fantasy of how a presidential campaign ought to be. It was about something government did that was actually okay–community colleges–and a new wrinkle to make them even better. She paid obeisance to the traditions of the spectacle, mostly for the pressies following her. She was asked: why was she running? Her response was not scintillating. She had four goals: to create the economy of the future, to support families and communities (which was sort of what she was doing at Kirkwood C.C.), to squeeze all that money out of the political system, even if it took a constitutional amendment to do so and finally, to protect the country from foreign threats. You can’t get much more vague than that. There were those, mostly on the left, who wanted her to be more specific, especially about the economy and the financial sector’s depredations. She will have to say more in time.

Today, though, was about contrasts. There was none of the usual political rhetoric, which, when pressed, she delivers in unconvincing fashion. She did not give a full-blown speech as the Republicans Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have done in recent days. But that was probably a good thing, because: who believes in rhetoric anymore? She made no promises. Her announcement video, notable for its inclusion of every last Democratic identity group, was refreshing for its upbeat tone–a real contrast to the bummer Republicans who’ve spent the last eight years saying that the country was in crisis, falling apart (much as the Democrats used to do, before Bill Clinton came along). And she used an interesting word: you. Her new slogan is: It’s Your Time.

It used to be said that the most powerful word in American politics was we. Franklin Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” The Constitution begins, “We The People…” But we has gotten to be treacherous in these cynical times — people don’t want to be included in the same category as the politicians. What do you mean we, red-tie man? So, in the primacy of the service economy, it’s the time of You, which is a lot better than “I” or “my,” the overuse of which has been a subtle problem for Barack Obama.

It is the simplest of messages: I’m going to focus on you, listen to you, propose things that make sense to you, eat at Chipotle’s as you do. Clinton’s words and her motivations will be torn, twisted, analyzed and ripped to shreds — sometimes with good reason — but if she can continue to focus on the you, on the programs that make sense without promising the moon, she has a chance not only to be formidable this year, but admirable as well.

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