TIME politics

Corps Values

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.

To avoid another Ferguson, we should be taking a lesson on police training from the SEALs

“Violence will not be tolerated,” said Missouri’s hapless governor Jay Nixon in the days before the grand jury announced its judgment in the Ferguson police-shooting case. He seemed to be indicating that officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for killing the unarmed Michael Brown on Aug. 9. If so, there is likely to be a public explosion of outrage. Of course, if Wilson is cleared, there will have to be compelling evidence that his extreme action was justified. But justifiable homicide does not equal unpreventable homicide. This killing didn’t need to happen.

“Of course it didn’t,” says Lew Hicks, a former Navy SEAL who has taught arrest-and-control methods to an estimated 20,000 police trainees across the country. Hicks was reluctant to talk about which specific techniques he would have used, because he wasn’t there. “I do teach weapon retainment, but that’s not the point. It’s how you carry yourself in the community you serve. You have to project calm and confidence,” he told me. “You have to be trained physically, mentally and even spiritually to make moral decisions instinctively, spur of the moment.” Wilson had placed himself on the defensive from the start. By all accounts, he was sitting in his car, talking to Brown through his open window. He needed to get out of the car and subtly establish his authority. Things like tone of voice, body language and facial expression can make all the difference.

I first met Lew Hicks 13 years ago, when he was part of the most rigorous and creative police-training program ever attempted in the U.S. It was called the Police Corps, and it was founded by Adam Walinsky, a crusty and contentious former Marine and aide to Robert F. Kennedy. After the Detroit riots in 1967–43 civilians were killed and hundreds injured–Walinsky spent the next 20 years studying police practices, from the pavement up. His original thought was to create an elite program that would lure graduates from top colleges to do four years of service in return for scholarship money and a fast track to graduate school. In the end, the recruits mostly came from state colleges, and they were kids who wanted to become cops anyway. Bill Clinton was the first board chairman of the Police Corps, and his Administration funded the program in 1995.

Training was the heart of the Corps. It was full-time residential, a form of boot camp. It was far more physical than routine training–the graduates were superfit–but the mental conditioning was rigorous as well. Indeed, it very much resembled the training the military provides for special operators like SEALs and Green Berets. It was situational: actors and retired cops were hired to play miscreants, and recruits were judged on how well they responded to spur-of-the-moment situations. Even the firing range was situational: it was paintball, and you could easily be “shot” if you made the wrong call. There was required reading about urban poverty, police work and leadership. Recruits were required to mentor troubled boys and girls. And Hicks taught them how to be: how to use their hands, how to present themselves, how to protect themselves. “I can pick out the Police Corps graduates on the street just by the way they stand,” said Baltimore police chief Ed Norris, who was one of the first to embrace the Corps. In the end, Walinsky produced more than 1,000 of the best-trained police officers in the country, and many are still on the job.

The Police Corps was tiny and expensive. There was all sorts of opposition to it. Liberals preferred that the money be spent on antipoverty programs. Conservatives liked the idea but preferred that the money not be spent at all. It was killed by George W. Bush, at which point federal spending on police programs went entirely in the wrong direction by providing local cops with militarized up-armored vehicles, cammies, Kevlar, sniper rifles. This, at a moment when the military, especially the Army, was moving toward retraining its troops in a way that resembled the Police Corps. “We want them to be able to make moral decisions under pressure on the basis of incomplete information,” General David Petraeus once told me, using almost the same words as Hicks.

The public conversation since the death of Michael Brown has largely been a waste of time. Remonstrating about race is important, but wouldn’t it be more useful to talk about training–not just for police officers, but teachers too? Good training costs money, but we need to have a conversation about how we currently spend money. These are the people, after all, who shape our lives and sometimes, tragically, our deaths.

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

This appears in the November 24, 2014 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 politics

Is This Hillary Clinton’s Moment?

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.

To win in 2016, she will need to appear fresh, aggressive and optimistic

On the Sunday before the 2014 election, a vision–perhaps a fantasy–of the future of the Democratic Party was on display at a get-out-the-vote rally in Nashua, N.H. The first speaker was Ray Buckley, chairman of the state party. Every other speaker, and there were lots, was a woman. There were two female candidates for state senate from the Nashua area. There was one of New Hampshire’s two (out of two) female members of Congress. There was Maggie Hassan, the incumbent governor. There was Jeanne Shaheen, a former governor locked in a tight race for another term in the U.S. Senate. Hillary Clinton was there too–at the last rally of 45 campaign stops she made for Democratic candidates during the 2014 campaign.

New Hampshire has always been a magic place for the Clintons. In 1992, Bill Clinton’s second-place finish gave him new life amid the Gennifer Flowers and draft-evasion scandals. In 2008, crushed by Barack Obama in Iowa, Hillary Clinton almost shed a frustrated tear on the day before the primary, then won, narrowly, keeping her candidacy alive. “You lifted me up, gave me my voice back,” she told the Nashua crowd. “You taught me so much about grit and determination.” A big “Ready for Hillary” truck was in the parking lot. It seemed the 2016 campaign had begun.

A few days later, 4 out of 5 of the female candidates onstage in Nashua won re-election, but it was an empty victory, since Democrats were crushed across the country. No doubt, the Republican sweep can be attributed to the unloved Obama, and to the fact that Presidents usually fare badly in their sixth-year election, and to the states in play, which favored the Republicans. But the Democratic candidates were weak and inept; they seemed defensive, reflexive, played out. They pretty much limited themselves to women’s issues, and those were clearly not enough to convince a frightened and frustrated country.

I watched Clinton speak three times during the campaign, and she limited herself to women’s issues too, but she did it cleverly. The emphasis was on economics rather than reproductive rights. She was especially good on the economic impact of pay equity: working women would have more money to spend, and they would spend it on consumer goods, which would create jobs–the opposite of trickle-down economics. She told specific personal stories about her difficulties as a working mom. She spoke slowly, softly, far more confidently than she had in past campaigns. There was a two-tiered rationale for her message: she was spot-on the Democrats’ national pitch, a good soldier selling the blue brand, but the emphasis on women’s rights also redressed a failing from her 2008 campaign. She had run on “experience” then and downplayed the fact that she was a piece of history: the first plausible woman to run for President. She doesn’t have to worry about experience now; everyone knows she has it. The question is, how does she play to her strengths as a woman if she chooses to run? (And I assume she will.) And how does she convince voters that she’s not the same old, same old?

The 2014 exit polls indicated that both political parties are roundly disdained. The Republicans earned their enmity because of their angry, intransigent extremism, but they may be emerging from the swamp. Their candidates this year were more moderate (though they still pandered shamelessly to the party’s paranoid base). Even Mitch McConnell was making postelection noises about getting stuff done in Washington. This raises a potential problem for Democrats. It could put a crimp in one of their strongest arguments: We’re not Republicans.

There are two even larger, perhaps existential problems for the Dems. They are the party of government, and people don’t like government. They don’t think it works. The botched rollout of Obamacare is far more persuasive to many people than its ensuing successes. Additionally, Democrats have allowed themselves to be lulled by demographics. They are strong among growing blocs: women, young people, minorities. Consequently, they have come to seem a party of identities rather than issues. They don’t speak to a larger, unifying sense of America; they speak to women and try to get out the vote among blacks, Latinos and students. They have come to seem opportunistic rather than optimistic.

The Obama Presidency is crippled, not dead. There will be opportunities for compromise and even triumph. But the Democrats are now Hillary Clinton’s party. She will be challenged for the nomination, and she will have to adjust to new political realities. She will also have to figure out a way to seem fresh, aggressive and optimistic–the precise opposite of the candidates the Democrats put forward in 2014.

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

This appears in the November 17, 2014 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.


5 Things to Watch for in the Midterm Elections

Will Mitch McConnell’s Republicans gain control of the Senate?

Walter V. Robinson of the Boston Globe is an old-time investigative reporter. He was at the heart of the Globe’s historic coverage of the Roman Catholic pedophile scandal. He also likes to check out the résumés of military veterans running for political office; more than a few have had the mysterious habit of trying to pad their combat records. So Seth Moulton, a former Marine captain running for Congress in Boston’s northern suburbs, seemed a natural target for Robinson’s inquiries.

What Robinson found was shocking. Moulton had received two medals for bravery under fire that he’d never mentioned publicly. He hadn’t even told his parents. He asked the Globe not to describe him as a hero. “Look,” he said, “we served our country, and we served the guys next to us. And it’s not something to brag about.”

Moulton’s taut New England sense of honor is notable in a time of Styrofoam braggadocio. He stands in contrast to Greg Orman, an independent running for Senate in Kansas, who refuses to tell voters whether he’d caucus as a Republican or a Democrat–no small thing, since his first vote may determine which party controls the Senate. This has been a craven, silly campaign on all sides. It has been a boom year for incompetent candidates, accompanied by the long-term decline of those with anything interesting to say. The advertising was, as always, atrocious, but it seemed more influential than ever because of the prevailing vacuity. Important issues were raised, but there was precious little actual discussion of them. Republicans wanted to talk about the perils of illegal immigration, but Democrats, by and large, refused to make the strong moral and practical argument in favor of reform–an argument embodied in a bipartisan bill that passed the Senate with significant Republican support. And when Democrats raised the no-brainer issue of equal pay for equal work, the Republicans simply refused to engage.

On a recent trip through the South, I asked several dozen politicians of both parties to name the one big thing they wanted to accomplish in Washington. They fled specificity for the safer precincts of banality–“balance the budget” for Republicans, “work across the aisle” for Democrats. No one had the courage to cite a specific idea: Here are six anachronistic weapons systems I’d like to cut; or, We should exempt small banks from the onerous Dodd-Frank regulations. They had been schooled well. You don’t want to take a specific stand on anything you don’t have to. People might not like your position. Popular democracy always bumbles toward the trivial, but the dullness of this year’s campaign has been paralytic.

And yet there are important matters at stake on Nov. 4–not least of which is whether Mitch McConnell’s Republicans will gain control of the Senate. A week out, it was still an open question. But even if the Republicans stumble, the results could yield some hints about the immediate future of American politics. Here’s what I’ll be looking at:

1. Democrats And Women

Chris Matthews once called the Democrats the “mommy” party. They were the meta-mommy party in this campaign. The heart of the matter was four female Democrats in hot Southern Senate races: Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, Michelle Nunn in Georgia and the incumbents Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana. Each emphasized women’s issues–equal pay, parental leave, abortion rights–in the hope of luring undecided, independent women to the fold. This has been page 1 in the Democratic playbook for at least 40 years. (Page 2 is scaring people about the loss of old-age entitlements.) It has been effective and still may be–but it has never before carried the electoral burden that it does this year. The alleged toxicity of Barack Obama has made it unsafe for Democrats to discuss much else.

The party was boosted by the failed Bush wars in 2006, 2008 and 2012, but Democrats have been boggled by what to say about ISIS in 2014. They’ve had no significant new ideas, foreign or domestic, on offer. And they’ve been too afraid to tout Obama’s complicated successes–the stimulus package that prevented a depression, the health care plan that may actually be working, and relative order at the border (a result of many years of security enhancements and a diminished flow of illegals during recent rough economic times). The argument on women’s economic issues is strong. It remains to be seen whether baby boomers who boast remarkable three-month, 3-D sonograms of their grandchildren will be quite so militant about abortion rights in the future. The fate of women’s issues, in the South and elsewhere, will have an impact on whether the party has to start rethinking its message going forward. It may not be able to count on Republicans’ continuing their boorish ways. Unless, of course, the conservatives win and overread the results this year.

2. Republicans And Purple States

Iowa and New Hampshire are mythic presidential-primary states; Colorado is a crucial, purple general-election state. All three have been trending toward the Democrats in recent campaigns. All three are senatorial toss-ups this year. In Iowa, the Republicans are boosted by an energetic candidate, Joni Ernst, facing a dreadful Democrat, Bruce Braley–who opened the campaign with a lawyerly slur against Chuck Grassley, the other U.S. Senator from Iowa. Grassley isn’t a lawyer–he’s well known and beloved as an Iowa farmer–and he’ll chair the Judiciary Committee if the Republicans win the Senate. This would be a big problem, Braley warned, as if lawyers weren’t considered more toxic than farmers by most Iowa voters. But there’s no excuse for the tight races that estimable Democrats Jeanne Shaheen and Mark Udall find themselves struggling through in New Hampshire and Colorado. Actually, there’s one excuse: Obama. He has been the Republicans’ one and only issue across the country, and it might well work. But what if it doesn’t? What if Obama–like women’s issues for the Democrats–is being overplayed?

This goes to the question of the Republicans’ strategy if they do win the Senate. Will they decide to make the Oval Office a veto factory by passing conservative wish-list bills, like repealing Obamacare, and sending them on to the White House? Or will they seek deals on immigration, infrastructure improvement and maybe even health care? Recent history suggests continued warfare. But that supposes that all of the American people despise the President as much as the Republican base does. The past six years have been a juvenile, name-calling fiesta for the likes of Rush Limbaugh, who prospers when Republicans are out of power. It is very tempting for the party to stay that course. I wouldn’t bet against it. But Republicans found in 1998 that compromising with a Democratic President could produce odd results, like balanced budgets and a Republican presidential victory in 2000.

3. Kansas Rejoins The Mainstream

The Senate race between the aforementioned independent, Greg Orman, and Republican stalwart Pat Roberts is curious. But the plight of the current governor, Sam Brownback, may be historic. Brownback has pitched his tent atop the quicksand of voodoo economics. The results are the same as when Ronald Reagan tried massive tax cuts in 1981: they have blown a giant hole in tax revenue. Unsustainable budget cuts–in education, in everything–have resulted. Brownback points out that the economy eventually revived under Reagan. True enough, but only after Reagan agreed to several huge tax increases and the tight-money magic of Paul Volcker’s Federal Reserve wrung inflation out of the system. Brownback’s Kansas disaster has caused the local Chamber of Commerce to rise up and support his Democratic opponent, Paul Davis, and this may have long-term consequences for Republicans.

The Chamber and other business groups have always opposed higher taxes and tighter regulations; their tacit support helped launch the Tea Party. But what if business groups, large and small, decide that fiscal responsibility is more important than tax cuts? Traditionally, business has also supported spending on education and infrastructure. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the high-tech community support immigration reform. What if the national business community follows the Kansas example and reshuffles its priorities? The Republican Party may well have to reshuffle its priorities too, and the myth of extreme supply-side economics might finally be put to rest.

4. The Quiet Jungle

Last spring I wrote about the new electoral possibilities in California, given its system of open primaries–also called jungle primaries. This allows the two top vote getters in the primary to compete in the general election, regardless of party. The aim was to rouse more centrist candidates. The mammoth 53-seat California congressional delegation has yielded only two same-party finals in 2014. In District 17, a moderate Democrat named Ro Khanna is challenging the traditional Democratic incumbent Mike Honda; in District 4, the Tea Party incumbent Tom McClintock is facing a more moderate Republican challenger, a West Point graduate named Art Moore. If the moderates win, it may encourage other centrists to try next time. But the incumbents seem to have a slight edge in both races.

5. The Omniscient Pollster

In 2012, Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight website correctly predicted the presidential results in every state. Consequently–and since the politicians aren’t having very many rallies anymore–the press has paid even more than its usual excessive attention to polling in the 2014 campaign. Very elaborate compilations by different sources have given the Republicans a monumental advantage in taking the Senate this year. But there’s a problem: the Republicans don’t have a monumental advantage in any of the key toss-up states. The polling has most of those races within the margin of error. And polling on down-ballot races is notoriously less accurate than it is on the presidential level. I won’t be surprised if the Republicans win the election, but it is possible they won’t.

It may be too much to ask that we journalists stop trying to do what we do worst–predicting the outcomes of races–and start doing what we should do best: hounding the candidates into specific answers on difficult questions. My sense this year has been that most politicians now assume that the vexing need to deal with journalists is pretty much over, unless they commit a mouth misdemeanor or something unseemly emerges about their past. They may be right. The media aren’t as powerful as they used to be. Budgets are tighter. There aren’t as many Walter Robinsons around to unearth the last thing that the public has come to expect: the shocking positive story.

This appears in the November 10, 2014 issue of TIME.
TIME People

Clinton and Warren, Together at Last

Both showed up in Boston to support Democratic candidate for Governor of Massachusetts Martha Coakley

Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren appeared on the same stage today, in the ballroom at Boston’s Park Plaza, but at different times. There must be some significance in that, right? Uh, no. Their appearances were complementary, not competitive. We tend to overanalyze these things at times… but it was fun to compare and contrast, all the same, as both women worked to gin up support for Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate in the Massachusetts Governor race, as she seemed to slip behind her Republican opponent Charles Baker.

Warren went first and emphasized Coakley’s willingness to take on the big banks that have been “tricking and trapping” the American people. She actually shook her fist at one point, but this was not a pitchfork speech… and not a long one, either. I’ve always been impressed by Warren’s ability to explain the complexities of financial policy in a way that civilians can understand, but she didn’t have much time for that. She stuck to the job at hand: praising Coakley as a populist hero. And she did it very well, if not transcendently.

Clinton was obviously the star of the show. She spoke after Coakley, and was given much more time than Warren. She was greeted, as both Warren and Coakley were, by a roar, though her roar may have been a smidgeon louder than the others’. She wasted no time in praising Warren as someone willing to “give it to those who deserve to get it.” (She also praised all the other elected officials present, especially Coakley.)

It will be said that Warren emphasized her break-up-the-banks populism while Clinton spoke about women’s issues, and that is true–although Clinton did offer one passing acknowledgment of Coakley as someone who was willing to fight against “corrupt financial institutions” during her years as Mass. Atty. General. But that wasn’t the most important thing about her speech. Actually, there were three important things:

1. The emphasis on women’s rights, especially equal pay, was spot on the Democrats’ most successful message in these 2014 campaigns. She told a personal story about Chelsea getting sick at the age of two, on a day when Clinton had to appear in court as a young lawyer. She told it well, making clear her anguish throughout the day, the difficulty of finding someone to take care of Chelsea (finally, “a trusted friend” volunteered to help) and the relief when she got home to find Chelsea better and reading with the friend. This was the opposite of her awkward “poor”-mouthing during her book tour. It was recognizably life-sized and very effective.

2. The story was striking to old-timers like me because this was exactly the sort of message she rarely delivered when she ran for President in 2008. She took the advice of her pollster-strategist Mark Penn and emphasized her experience rather than her gender, which was disastrously stupid. Her life-long obsession with women’s and children’s issues is a calling more than a message. Although, a message it certainly is, grounded and practical…and she laid out the financial benefits of equal pay in a way that might have made the Big Dog proud: she talked about the things that moms could buy with the extra money. Food for the kids, better daycare, maybe even a car–think about the impact on the economy! (Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if her husband had helped a little with that one.)

3. She spoke slowly, confidently, conversationally. No screaming. The audience listened intently, at times losing track of what they were supposed to do for applause lines. She didn’t try to rouse them, except at the end–when her peroration began inaudible because of the cheers.

Yes, it was packaged. Almost everything is, in politics these days. But it didn’t seem packaged. There’s a long and winding road to travel between now and 2016, but she seems to have given smarter and subtler thought to how she’s going to present herself than she did last time.


Obama’s Leadership Shortage

His policies are fine. But the President is often a prisoner of his instincts

On the first Monday in October, Kasie Hunt of NBC asked U.S. Senator Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat, what his feelings were about President Obama’s response to the Ebola threat. He said, and I quote, “Ahhh-uhhhhhhhhhm,” followed by two minutes of gobbledygook. Two days later, Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senator from Kentucky, was asked who she voted for in 2008 and 2012. Her answer was similarly excruciating, and foolish. She cited the privacy of the ballot box. And about the same time, former-nearly-everything Leon Panetta landed a hammer blow on his old boss: “He [Obama] approaches things like a law professor in presenting a logic of his position … My experience in Washington is that logic alone doesn’t work. Once you lay out a position, you are going to roll up your sleeves and you have to fight to get it done … In order for Presidents to succeed, they cannot just–when they run into problems–step back and give up.”

All of this, especially Panetta, added fuel to the eternal bonfire of venality from the right. That Obama’s presidency has “disintegrated” or “crumbled” is now an article of faith in the Fox holes. Drudge featured an Ebola poster with the O an Obama symbol. That’s about as funny as MoveOn.org’s infamous “General Betrayus” ad. So it’s over, right? Obama’s toast, or a spectacularly terrible President at the very least, right?

Uhhhhhm. This is the part where I’m supposed to defend the President. He really did pull us out of a probable depression with an effective stimulus package; the economy continues to wheeze, but it wheezes forward. He really did make history by producing a universal health care plan that will not be repealed but will be reformed over time. The nonstop Republican critique that these programs were “disasters” has been rendered ridiculous. (In Kentucky, Mitch McConnell had to pull a Mark Pryor on that state’s very successful version of Obama’s plan.) The President has been sane and relatively moderate in his selection of Supreme Court Justices. His proposed job-growth policies would probably work, if given a chance by the Republicans.

He has been sane, too, in his foreign policy, for the most part. Those who say he should have been tougher on ISIS by arming the Syrian rebels–talking to you, Madam Secretary and Mr. Panetta–are wildly wrong. We would have wound up arming ISIS. There is precedent for this: we offered a fabulous buffet of armaments to the Iraqis, who left them for ISIS as they turned tail and ran in Mosul. Obama did cleave to the dreadful Nouri al-Maliki too uncritically–and thereby allowed a corrupt Shi’ite fragment to call its sectarian tune. That was Obama’s fundamental Iraq mistake.

But who hasn’t made an Iraq mistake over the past decade? The proof of Obama’s moderation can be found in the blundering simplicity of his critics: the neo-imperialists who think we can actually determine, by force of arms, what happens in the Middle East; the left-libertarians who don’t think we have the right to protect ourselves from terrorism by launching drone strikes, conducting special operations and tracking terrorist phone calls. Obama has stood as a bulwark against the irrationalities of both parties.

That’s the case for Obama. I really believe it. But I also believe that Panetta has a point. It is about the ethereal nature of true leadership. I remember writing a similar defense of Jimmy Carter nearly 40 years ago: a great number of the policies that Ronald Reagan was later given credit for launching–Paul Volcker’s tough inflation cure; a bristling stand against the Soviets, including intermediate missiles in Europe–were Carter’s policies first. He slugged his way to a historic peace treaty in the Middle East, but he didn’t convey two essential American qualities: forcefulness and optimism. Indeed, if you look at his infamous “malaise” speech, it’s a riveting piece of work, containing more tough truth about the country than the pile of Democratic utterances in the ensuing decade. I remember thinking, Poor Jimmy: history has led America to a rut, and we’ll never be as powerful as we once were. Reagan proved me young and foolish. Some of his achievements are illusory or attributable to Carter policies (as in economics), but the man knew how to lead.

I can’t say that for Obama. I sense that Panetta is right about his unwillingness to fight. Lately, the President’s body language has too often conveyed disgust and cynicism. He seems defeated by the trivial pursuits of the media and his opponents. He does not have the sunny conviction necessary to carry the country through a period of near biblical plagues and wars. His policies and popularity have been crippled by his dour political sense. A basic law of politics: this cannot last. But I have no idea what comes next.

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Read next: A Troubled American Moment

This appears in the October 27, 2014 issue of TIME.
TIME nation

A Troubled American Moment

As conspiracy theories abound, voters are uncertain about what to believe

“How do you feel about the federal government buying tons of ammunition for the post office in order to raise the price of ammo for gun owners?” was the first question I got at a town meeting in Shreveport, La. Kevin and Lois Martello, a dentist and speech therapist, respectively, had put together a group of 15 friends and neighbors to talk politics, and it was pretty intense from the start. I asked Lee Foshee, who had raised the post-office question, where he’d heard that. He told me he had several sources. One of them may have been the right-wing Breitbart website, I later learned, which has been tracking ammo sales to federal agencies. Breitbart didn’t mention the price-raising strategy, but Bill Kostelka, a certified public accountant, confirmed that he’d had to stand in line to buy .22-caliber rounds recently. (For the record: the U.S. Postal Inspection Service is armed and needs ammo from time to time.)

It’s hard to know what to believe,” said Lois Martello, the host, who seemed as nonplussed by the post-office-ammo conspiracy as I was. She and her husband were a bit more moderate than some of their friends. “Especially in the election season,” she continued, “when all the ads are on the air. But even on the news, it’s hard to tell what’s real.” I was tempted to defend my profession, but we seemed to be in a full-fledged American Moment, and I didn’t want to kill the buzz. Anyway, Kevin Martello, Lois’ husband, tried to take the conversation “in a different direction,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty concerned that the top 1% of the population controls 40% of the wealth in this country.”

There were a couple of head nods but not much commentary. There was more concern about government waste than about unseen wealth. Indeed, another chorus of consternation ensued, this time about food stamps. Waylon Bates, the principal of the local middle school, said he’d seen people “buying T-bone steaks and giant bottles of orange soda” with government scrip. Others said they’d seen the very same thing. And Foshee said he’d seen long lines at a combination liquor store and check-cashing place–a fine establishment, no doubt–on the day the Social Security disability checks came out each month.

I have heard the T-bone steak and orange-soda riff a number of times on road trips in recent years. It is always T-bone steaks. Sometimes it’s dog food too. Is it true? Maybe so; there are food-stamp abuses, no doubt. Or maybe it happened once, someone saw it, and the story spread, sprayed into the atmosphere by talk radio. It is now an urban (and rural) legend. The food-stamp stories mix with more purposeful fantasies spread by interest groups, like the National Rifle Association’s constant spew that the government wants to “take away” your guns rather than merely regulate their use. And then there are the immigrant stories: Kostelka heard about a carload of Mexicans stopped by the local police without driver’s licenses or proof of residency. “And they were given a fine and set free,” he said. True, no doubt, but incomplete: fewer would-be immigrants have been crossing the border in recent years, and the Obama Administration has been sending record numbers back home.

Democrats are swimming against the prevailing cynicism as they attempt to retain the Senate this year. Across the South, their candidates are placing a heavy bet on women’s issues, especially equal pay, and education. In some places, like North Carolina, where a traditional emphasis on education spending has been violated by the Republican state legislature, they have a chance to win. In Louisiana, where Senator Mary Landrieu is facing a virtual candidate named Bill Cassidy–local reporters claim they can’t find the guy, and I couldn’t either–the incumbent is facing a real hurdle. The hurdle is Barack Obama, about whom the crazy rumors are–still!–thick, and the ads are constant: each of the incumbent Democratic Senators running in the Southern states I visited has voted with the President more than 90% of the time. That is one thing every voter who enters the polls will know next month.

There is also an undercurrent of fear–about ISIS and Ebola–that does not help the Democrats. Most of the people I talked with don’t think this federal government is competent to handle anything. And there is an undercurrent of exhaustion, especially among Democrats who have talked themselves silly trying to dispel the rumor fog that has engulfed political discourse. These are stories that stick in the mind and rot the body politic. They are a dominant political currency, and not just in the South.

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This appears in the October 20, 2014 issue of TIME.
TIME Joe Klein road trip

A Glimmer of Arkansas’ Future

Rison, Arkansas

There was one African-American who attended Tom Cotton’s early afternoon rally in a pleasant little grove of trees on Rison’s dusty Main Street. Her name was Patricia Mays and she was running for state representative–as a Republican, against a Democratic incumbent. Mays is young and attractive, and very straight ahead: She has a PhD in industrial engineering from Texas A&M, and she has four issues. They are: abortion, education reform, health care and jobs. We spoke about all of them and she had some interesting ideas, especially in health care where she supports a system of local clinics where the doctors are paid directly by the patients, eliminating the insurance companies. “Then you could offer a major medical plan on top of that,” she said. (We didn’t talk about how this would be funded, but she said, correctly, that it would be a lot cheaper with the insurance companies out of the picture.)

I asked her why she was running as a Republican. “Because of my personal values,” she said. And what did her African-American friends think of it? “People tend to vote the party without thinking about it too much. They don’t know the details. But when I tell the people in my church, for example,” she said, that the Democrats may have been for civil rights but, “they’re in favor of abortion and the homosexual agenda, people say, ‘I didn’t know that.'”

This is somewhat hard to believe, given the never-ending wonderwall of negative television ads–although, significantly, I haven’t seen any ads that vamped on the “homosexual agenda.” But it’s not hard to believe that bright conservative African-American (and Latino) candidates like Mays are going to have a piece of the American future.

The Republicans have given Democrats the gift of intolerance in a rapidly-changing country. A Republican officeholder in Tennessee told me privately, “If we could get immigration solved, a lot of conservative, church-going, business-owning Hispanics would be a natural fit for our party.” This is not a new thought: it was at the heart of Karl Rove’s party-building mantra. As time passes, though, I sense that many more Republican office-holders are seeing the wisdom and efficacy, and also the justice, of this path. I’d be surprised in a Republican Congress didn’t come up with some immigration plan in the next term. The problem is that nativism is as compelling as ever down among the grass roots.

The Democrats, meanwhile, seem smug and bereft of any significant ideas for reforming a government that everyone I’ve met on this road trip–everyone–assumes is too big, broken and inept. Granted, it’s the South…but the news in the world is grim and scary. “Given what’s happened this week,” says Tom Cotton, noting the Secret Service and Ebola breaches, “it’s not easy to argue that the government is doing its job very well.”

And you can bet that Leon Panetta’s bombshell portrayal of President Obama as easily disappointed and unwilling to fight will find its way to the public–those sorts of characterizations always do–and have an impact, especially on disappointed Democrats in the coming election.

As I proceed on these road trips, year after year, the levels of disgust and cynicism just seem to compound. I’ll have more to say about that in my print column this week.

TIME Joe Klein road trip

Cotton in Arkansas

Monticello, Arkansas

It is not enough today in the south to say that individuals have a constitutional right to bear arms. No, “It is a God given right,” Rep. Tom Cotton told about 50 Tea Party and 2nd Amendment activists at the Drew County fairgrounds on a crisp October Saturday.

It is not enough for teenagers to have the right to bear arms, children do, too. Cotton, who is running for the U.S. Senate, poses with a tiny girl who has just won a pink bb rifle that is nearly taller than she is in the Tea Party raffle. “You know,” the former Army Captain tells the girl, “when I was in the Army, I had to keep my rifle at my side, at all times.” Now, he and his wife keep handguns next to their bed.

I suspect that all this could seem a bit grotesque to northerners, an overreaction to the various efforts to put a few moderate restrictions on the use and sale of guns. But in the south, it is part of an elaborate mindset, which has developed–with no small help from the National Rifle Association–over the past decade or so. All the pieces fit neatly: Crime is everywhere. You need to protect yourself. You not only have the right to carry guns, but also the right to carry concealed weapons. In Akansas, and before that in Louisiana and Mississippi, I heard women complain about their inability to carry their concealed weapons when they visit their children in New York. “I mean, New York!” A woman in Shreveport told me. (I was happy to tell her that New York was safer than most southern cities.) And on top of that, we have terrorists sneaking across the “unprotected” border. And on top of that now, we have Ebola.

The day before, Cotton had joined with Arkansas’ other members of Congress to call for a complete travel ban on flights from ebola-affected countries. “We have terrorists coming in with bombs strapped to their underpants,” Cotton told me afterward. “Do you think it’s impossible that they will start sending people infected with Ebola?” Immediately, I think of all those girls kidnapped by Boko Haram…and yeah, it’s possible.

Cotton is, obviously, very conservative, but he’s not a half-crazed firebrand. He is smart and disciplined. A lot of people in the south reflexively oppose the President’s decision to send troops to combat Ebola in Africa, but Cotton is for it: “This is the sort of mission we can do very well,” he said. “We have the medical training, the technology, the ability to organize clinics on the ground.”

Cotton is running against the Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor, an estimable moderate, but he’s got a problem. He may be opposed to gun control, “but he voted for the President’s Supreme Court nominees,” Cotton points out, “and they vote for gun control.”

I tried to catch up with Pryor. We missed each other at the Little Rock Run for the Cure–an exhilarating event that jammed downtown with thousands of people–and then he dived into debate prep, which is probably a good call. As always, debates are a telling event in high-profile political campaigns. That’s one of the reason why it’s foolish to make predictions in many of these races. The Republicans have a coherent argument–federal overreach and an unpopular President–but the individual attractiveness, and credibility, of the candidates will have an impact on how people, especially white women, vote. It always does.



Taj Mahal’s Delta Blues Cruise

Joe Klein's Road Trip in Greenville, MS
Daymon Gardner for TIME Musician Taj Mahal, left, and Joe Klein, right, at Doe's Eat Place in Greenville, Miss. on Sept. 30, 2014.

New Orleans

There is one basic rule when a musician comes along on one of my road trips: You don’t have to play. I like musicians, love the way they see and hear things. It’s nice when they do play–as Ry Cooder did last year–and a little disappointing if they don’t. The great American blues musician Taj Mahal brought his guitar and five-string ukelele along for the ride, but he chose not to bring them to the New Hope First Baptist church. “You don’t play my music in churches down here,” he explained. “It’s the devil’s music and I don’t sing gospel.”

Ah, the old bifurcation between blues and gospel. After all, the devil did teach Robert Johnson how to play the blues out on Highway 61, which we drove from Memphis to Greenville. Taj was blown away by the Greenville town meeting, which you can read about here. And so was I. There were more than a few things said that I couldn’t fit into that column; it got pretty fascinating when I asked the assembled black public officials about President Obama. “I love my President,’ said Lawrence Browder, a chancery court clerk. “I love the man, but he’s allowed himself to be compromised by the people around him. He’s unwilling to kick butt. You know, you talk about executive orders–the Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order, right?”

“I cut him some slack,” said state rep. Rufus Straughter. “He’s a Hawaiian.” I asked what that meant and Rep. Straughter responded with a story. “My grand-daddy bought a John Deere tractor in 1942 and word got around the community. One day a white guy pulls up to the house and asks about the tractor. My grand-daddy says yes, he’s got it. The white guy is amazed. He says, ‘How could you get this tractor and I can’t?'” There was a round of laughter from the 25 people in the room. “See, there was an assumption of inferiority,” Straughter concluded. “All of us had to grow up with that. The President was brought up by white people–his grandparents–in Hawaii. He never grew up with that bigotry.”

Taj Mahal was biting his lip at this point. He spent 20 years living in Hawaii. “Of course, Obama grew up with bigotry,” he told me later. “There are all sorts of cross-currents in Hawaii. There’s a Hawaiian phrase for what Obama is.” He said the phrase, but I was driving and couldn’t write it down. “You know what it means? It means ‘people who pray with their mouths closed.’ Hawaiians make a lot of noise when they pray.” And he launched into an intense and hilarious imitation of Hawaiian praying.

Taj is a great impersonator. He can do a mean Bob Dylan, an elderly Jew from his Brooklyn birthplace, a valley girl and several different varieties of Creole patois. When a Dylan song from Nashville Skyline came on, Taj said, respectfully. “That boy had to do hard work to change his voice to sing like that.” I’ve been listening to Taj for 45 years, since his great double album, “Giant Step” and “De Old Folks at Home,” the latter a combination of acoustic blues, clapping songs and chants. He went on to record an album with a tuba band and his Hawaiian group, The Hula Band, which featured more than a couple of ukeleles. More recently, he’s gone back all the way to the roots of the music, in Africa. In the midst of all this, he played with the Rolling Stones and more than a few other white superstars, who aspired to sound like him–and sold a lot of records then he did, trying.

Taj was as blown away by the Greenville town meeting as I was, especially when the folks started talking about integration. They felt suckered by it. They had abandoned their black institutions–the stores, restaurants, banks and newspapers–and rushed to patronize the whites. And they had lost their community, in the process. And here Taj could not remain silent, “Y’all built the levy,” the civil rights movement, “and then what did you do? You sat down, splayed out your legs, put your shovels across your laps and stopped digging. My grandfather”–from South Carolina–“talked about it all the time. You can’t stop building. You gotta keep at it.”

There was general agreement in the room. And I could see Taj was feeling pretty good about that. I was kind of hoping that he’d break into one of his clapping songs here…But he didn’t. He was in church with a bunch of elected officials. The next day, as we drove to New Orleans, he sang some offhand blues, but mostly he talked about how the conversation in Greenville was the eternal conversation in the black community. We had dinner in New Orleans that night with my wife, Victoria, and a lady friend of his, whom he called “Big Red.” He bought.


TIME In the Arena

The Delta Blues

Daymon Gardner for TIME Saying grace Congregants of the New Hope First Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss., attend a town hall on Sept. 29

Two town meetings, two very different kinds of despair

Politics in Mississippi is still passionate, as you might expect. And it is still tragic, which shouldn’t be a surprise, either. The passion seems to be running with right-wing Tea Party sorts, who are in full rebellion against the statewide Republican Party. The tragedy is in the black community, which is permeated by a deep sense of failure; the most basic political facts of life–like the value of integration–are being questioned. During the last week of September, I attended symmetrical town meetings in Mississippi: of former Senate challenger Chris McDaniel’s extreme conservatives near Jackson and of black elected officials and educators from the counties surrounding the Delta town of Greenville.

“Men don’t follow titles,” said republican McDaniel. “They follow courage.” He was quoting from the movie Braveheart, he said, citing William Wallace–an ancestor of the largely Scots-Irish crowd of 50 or so–as played in blueface by Mel Gibson. Wallace was McDaniel’s model. He fought against the English elites, just as McDaniel was fighting against the old, pork-loving Bourbon Republican establishment, people like former governor Haley Barbour and Senator Thad Cochran, who would compromise their principles in order to get public-works projects for the state. They had stolen the primary election from him. They had allowed an alleged 40,000 Democrats (a synonym in Mississippi for African Americans) to vote in what was supposed to be a Republican primary. Cochran had won. McDaniel was challenging the result. A lawyer explained the relevant codicils to the group before McDaniel got up to speak. It was reminiscent–to me, at least–of the civil rights attorneys 50 years ago, who educated Southern blacks about their rights under the law. There was a righteous “We shall overcome” attitude in the room.

The effort is probably quixotic. Most people in the room believed that the Bourbons “controlled” the legal system. In fact, many people in the room seemed to believe they were beset by conspiracies at the federal level as well. Their solution was a strict, if slightly muddy, libertarianism–McDaniel describes himself as libertarian–on all but social issues. Laura Van Olderschelde, the president of the Mississippi Tea Party, said she didn’t feel safe to “talk about my Christian faith away from Mississippi. That’s how this country was founded, and I cannot subscribe to people who want to deny that.” This unleashed a torrent of commentary from the audience. A woman named Tricia McNulty linked liberals to “Lucifer, who has wanted the fall of man.” A firefighter named Andy Devine said that liberals were in the midst of a long-term plot to take over the schools and impose socialism. They were sneaking this through because the media diverted the public with “the rutting habits of the Kardashian sisters.”

There wasn’t any debate about any of this; there was absolute conviction. The positions were stated in matter-of-fact fashion, but there was a media-wise quality to it as well. There was no mention of African Americans. The McDaniel supporters had been accused of racism and wanted to leave no trace of that. An accountant named Vince Thornton did mention that “so many people were getting something for free,” but that was about as far as it went. “We are not going away,” said Robert Kenney, who quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer about silence being a political decision. “We fight this,” he added, meaning the struggle against the state Republicans, “until we win.”

My first day on the job, a white plantation owner killed his wife,” said Andrew Thompson Jr., the first black sheriff of Coahoma County. “I waited until 7 p.m. to arrest him because I wanted him to spend at least one night in jail. But at 10 p.m., they”–the local white business community–“opened the bank so he could post bail.” That was the way it was now: no more lynching, no more violence. The white folks had gotten clever. “It’s been a roller coaster,” Sheriff Thompson continued. “We made some progress in the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of folks got elected, but we’ve lost ground the last 15 or so years, and especially since the Tea Party came along.”

The mood in the basement of New Hope First Baptist Church in Greenville was a roller coaster too. It started with anger and slowly lapsed toward despair. There was none of the lockstep certainty of McDaniel’s supporters. Something had gone very wrong in the Mississippi Delta black community, and there were an array of different explanations for it. Racism was one: Why were the white folks making all the money from the development of the 80%-black blues town of Clarksdale? Even the local Delta Blues festival–said to be the oldest in the country–was being supplanted by a white-led effort, the Mighty Mississippi Music festival, that was being supported by the business community. “If the whites aren’t running it, they don’t want to be part of it,” said Errick Simmons, a Greenville city councilman, who pointed out that the local casinos, which didn’t help out with the Delta festival, had contributed to the Mighty Mississippi, which–by the way–also featured country music.

The stories of subtle, and not so subtle, racism were compelling but insufficient. There was a piece missing, and these thoughtful people were growing uncomfortable with the increasingly obvious vacuum. The discussion really began to get lively when the Rev. Torey Bell, who said that “the system” was set up to keep blacks dependent, went a bit too far. Even the federal money that had come to upgrade the schools was a trick. “They’re putting in laptops and computers for our kids,” he said, “and they got none of that at home. They can’t comprehend that environment. It’s near impossible for them to succeed.” This was disputed by most of the older people in the room. They’d been working to secure that funding for decades. “At a certain point,” said Timaka James Jones, a clerk at the local court, “we’ve got to take some responsibility in our community too.”

I asked what had happened to the community, so famously strong during the civil rights movement. There was reluctance to answer, at first. But then it came in a rush: the rug had been pulled out from under them. They had rushed into integration and left some of their most cherished institutions in the dust. “We used to have black banks, insurance companies, bakeries, newspapers,” said Willie Bailey, a lawyer and state legislator for District 49. Now, Nelson Street–where most local black businesses were housed–was mostly deserted, except for churches, drug dealers and the famed restaurant Doe’s Eat Place. “The black church was the last institution standing, and then the [George W.] Bush Administration came along with that faith-based stuff, offering money to the churches for social programs, but they couldn’t talk politics anymore.” (I don’t know about that: more than a few black, urban pastors took the money and kept their megaphones.)

The segregated schools had been better, said Jessie Williams, who said she was the first black teacher in the newly integrated schools in the 1960s. The whites left and went to private “academies,” and the integrated public schools became sad all-black husks. The thing was, integration had enabled a lot of the best kids–those who would have been teachers and business owners–to go north. There was some resentment that they had never looked back. “Integration has been a problem,” Williams concluded, setting off a buzz in the room. “It’s the worst thing that ever happened to us,” muttered Sheriff Thompson. But he didn’t really mean that.

I’d like to thank Congressman Bennie Thompson for putting together the extraordinary group at New Hope First Baptist Church. The contrast between their candor and self-doubt and Chris McDaniel’s bold, bluefaced conservatives could not have been more striking, or more depressing. It is the difference between simplicity and complexity. The Tea Party folks believe that all they have to do is win their revolution and everything will be better. The blacks won their revolution, and lost their focus, and inherited a chimera of equality. Now they’ve got to do the hardest thing: regroup, develop new strategies and come on strong again.

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

This appears in the October 13, 2014 issue of TIME.

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