Joe's Road Trip 2011

Road Trip Day 9: Time Warp

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Lynsey Addario / VII for TIME

The welcoming committee at the Arkansas welcome center in Texarkana, at the border of Arkansas, Sept. 19, 2011.

Arkadelphia, Arkansas

Yes, it’s really important for me to out here listening to non-Beltway people. I truly enjoy doing it and I learn a lot. But this is one week when I’d just as soon be back East, with all that’s going on. There is the President’s smart, no-nonsense opening bid on deficit reduction–and that, despite much of the commentary, is exactly what it was: an opening bid, which the Republicans can hope to modify if they wish to compromise. (The President’s aides have already said that they’re willing to put Social Security reform and raising the Medicare retirement age back on the table, if the GOP wants to deal.) If they don’t wish to compromise, the two parties can go to the country with the Republicans in favor of cutting Medicare but not even taxing Warren Buffet; and the Democrats in favor of a mix of cuts and revenue increases. They can also go to the people with the Democrats in favor of lowering taxes on the middle class and the Republicans opposed. (I enjoy the twisted GOP rationale of being opposed to “temporary” payroll tax cuts–of course, the Bush tax cuts were temporary, too, and the Republicans voted for that in droves.)

The other two big issues this week are the lifting of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the vote on Palestinian statehood. I expect that the former will become a big issue out here as soon as people find out that it’s happened; and the latter will work to gin up support for Israel, and perhaps against Obama, even though the President has vowed to veto it. (By the way, I’m in favor of a Palestinian state, and opposed to the settlement expansion of the Netanyahu government, and while I’d prefer to wait for Fatah and Hamas to sort out their divisions before statehood arrives, it’s about time that the UN re-formalized what it posited in 1948: that there be a Jewish state and an Arab state on the lands east of the Jordan River.)

But all that seemed very far away yesterday. Indeed, the road trip seemed to take a step back in time, as I attended a town meeting offered by Congressman Mike Ross, here in Arkadelphia. Ross is an anomaly–a Democratic member of Congress from the South. And Arkadelphia is an anomaly–still a Democratic bastion, here in Arkansas. And yesterday’s meeting was an anomaly–no fireworks, pretty much politics as it used to be. “About 1/3 of the people who show up to these things are my supporters,” said Ross, who held 3 other rural Arkansas town meetings yesterday, “and another 1/3 are people who follow politics closely, and the last 1/3 are people who have specific problems.”

This was not always the case. Last year, just before Obamacare passed, Ross held a town meeting at a local university–Henderson State–and 900 people showed up, most of them bused in by local Tea Party groups, to protest. (Ross cast a Blue Dog vote against health care reform.) “And even then, people were pretty polite,” the Congressman told me. “That’s just the way we are down in south Arkansas.”

Yesterday’s town meeting, about 40 people gathered in an upstairs room of city hall in early evening, ¬†featured ¬†a sleepy form of politics as it used to be: a few people complained about the price of their prescription drugs (one noted that generic drugs were cheap, so why couldn’t “real” drugs be cheap, too–Ross neglected to tell him that generics are real drugs). A man complained about FEMA response to flooding in another district. A man criticized the impending free-trade pacts with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

Ross is retiring from Congress after six terms and will probably run for Governor of Arkansas in 2014, and an African-American complained about the “fact” that members of Congress can retire with a pension that is 100% of their salaries, while military retire with 50%. Ross said that despite some of the stories spreading on the internet–“That’s where I read it,” the man said–members of Congress did not get “salaries for life.” He added, “We’re in the same retirement plan as every other federal employee, which means I’ll get a couple of thousand dollars per month when I’m 62. That’s not bad, but it’s not 100%.”

By law, the starting amount of a Member’s annuity cannot exceed 80% of their final salary, but their pensions are still relatively cushy. They’re eligible for a pension at age 62 if they’ve completed five years of service, at age 50 if they’ve completed 20 years of service and at any age if they’ve completed 25 years of service. McClatchy did an investigation earlier this year and found that 13 Senators and 31 House members had served 25 years and accrued pensions worth at least $50,000. They note that the median pension for the average retired person in the U.S., age 65 or older, is about $8,000. –KS

Residents attend a town hall meeting with the 4th district 's Rep. Mike Ross in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, Sept. 19, 2011. (Lynsey Addario / VII for TIME)

The meeting continued like that. Ross swatted down internet rumors. “People say do away with foreign aid and all our problems will be solved,” he said at one point. “But if we did away with all foreign aid, including aid to Israel, our $1.3 trillion deficit would be reduced all the way down to $1.297 trillion. But I do agree that we shouldn’t be giving aid to any country that is not with us 110%.”

It was a smart, moderate, adept performance by the Congressman. He expressed measured support for both the President’s jobs and deficit reduction plans. Indeed, the only negative evaluation of Obama came from the local Democratic Party chair, Anna Farris, who said she was happy about Obama’s deficit speech, “I have been wanting a little bit more LBJ in him. This reaching across the aisle has gone far enough.”

That was as testy as it got. It reminded me of the way American politics used to be in the 1980s and 1990s, before the crash, before the Tea Party. Arkadelphia may well be an outlier–or maybe the Tea Party, with whom I’ll visit later today in Texarkana, is the outlier. “You know, there were always people who thought like the Tea Party,” Ross told me after the meeting. “But they hadn’t hooked up with each other. Social networking really changed everything. It made the Tea Party people aware they weren’t alone. Obamacare gave it a real boost down here. But my sense is that it may be starting to diminish a little bit now.”

I’ll have a better sense of whether that’s right or not after I meet with the Patriot Party in Texarkana tonight.

And finally–Yesterday’s ipod-shuffle top five songs:

Greenville by Lucinda Williams–I may be a minority, but I’m happier when she uses that great big voice of hers, rather than growling and slurring. She just belts out this one.

Mill Towns by the Del McCoury Band–I missed the Magnificent McCoury at Austin City Limits. This song is distillate of Del.

There’s Gonna be Some Changes Made by Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler. Riffing and ribbing from two masters.

You Gotta Serve Somebody by Shirley Caesar. The great gospel singer covers Dylan, brilliantly.

The Eyes of Sarah Jane by the Jayhawks. I just love the Jayhawks and they’re coming out with a new album.