In the Arena

Election Road Trip, Day 11: Democratic Tea

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Joe Klein talks to Robin Carnahan in Kansas City, Missouri. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael - Magnum for TIME

Kansas City, Missouri

Traveling Companions: Harper Barnes, Katy Steinmetz

Events: Robin Carnahan veterans roundtable; Time Kansas City barbecue

Robin Carnahan, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from Missouri, is attempting a three-cushion bank shot: Her opponent is long-time Republican Congressman Roy Blunt, a respected and central figure in the Establishment wing of the Republican party…and so she’s trying some Tea Party ju-jitsu: running again the DC establishment, running against the broken system, running for the folks against the special interests. There are two slight problems with this: she’s a Democrat, and so she has to answer for the actions of her party and President, which has controlled Washington these past two years. And she’s a Carnahan: her dad was governor and elected Senator, famously, after he died in 2000. Her mom assumed her father’s Senate seat. She currently serves as Missouri’s Secretary of State–and while she argues, effectively, that she has run her office in an exemplary manner, she can’t really make the case that she’s an up-from-nowhere, mad-as-hell populist.

But she tries. She’s against the big bank bailout. “The TARP money was supposed to stabilize the economy, to reopen the credit markets. But all it has done is save the bankers, who are now giving themselves big bonuses. Meanwhile, here in Missouri, only 3 out of 10 small businesses that apply for loans get funded by our local banks.”

This stat comes from a report by Third Way — a centrist, progressive Democratic think tank in D.C. — entitled “A Success Agenda for the Middle Class.” On p. 90, it reads: “Of small businesses seeking a new line of credit in 2009, only three in ten succeeded in doing so.” So it’s not just about Missouri. And in the chapter endnotes, that fact is labeled as coming from a Dec. 2008 poll. I seem to detect a fish, or at least some poor footnote-coordination skills. – Katy

She also wants to abolish all earmarks, “It’s right at the center of Washington culture.” She was for the stimulus plan, but feels that most people are confused about it and the Obama Administration didn’t do much to sell it. “In business, producing a good product is half the battle,” she says. “The other half is, you’ve got to sell it.”

Robin Carnahan campaigning in Kansas City, Missouri. Photography by Peter van Agtmael - Magnum for TIME

She’s not entirely thrilled with the President, especially his Wall Street-elite economic team. “I was against reappointing Ben Bernanke,” she says. “I think it was time for a fresh approach.” Right now, she’d like to see the President’s tax breaks for small business pass–and also, perhaps, a payroll tax break for employees. She’d pay for it by rescinding the $45 billion in tax breaks the oil companies get each year and the assorted benefits that corporations get for doing business–and moving jobs–overseas. “If America really knew how much encouragement companies get to move jobs out, people would really be outraged.”

And so the chorus grows–at least, in the middle of the country: there is a sense that a wrong turn has been taken. For the past 30 years, there’s been anger about the loss of American manufacturing jobs. But now another piece of the puzzle has been added: the people who’ve been benefitting most from those jobs moving to Mexico and China are the people who scammed the system with casino-game financial schemes and were bailed out, and are now back to raking in tremendous profits again. I’m not sure Carnahan can ride this wave to the Senate–she’s not exactly a hellfire candidate and running against your own party isn’t easy–but her brand of Democratic Tea is an interesting commodity and not an insignificant development in this election year.

After the Carnahan event, Harper, Katy and I went to a fabulous barbecue dinner that Time–and our great Kansas City correspondent, David Von Drehle–threw to welcome the Joe Roadshow to town. And an interesting thing happened: after dinner, David and I were taking questions from the audience. I was pretty much repeating what I’ve been writing here the past few weeks. And I made the point that most people really were tired of the squabbling in DC, and wanted both parties to work together–and that I’d been disappointed by the Republicans refusal to negotiate on big issues like health care and the stimulus, since they had some very good ideas (indeed, I’d supported the Republican health care alternative in 1994). At which point, a woman launched a harangue at me for blaming the Republicans for the mess when they’re out of power now. It went on for a while. I wasn’t carrying a notebook, so I can’t replicate it here.

She was such a Show-Me spitfire that she pushed an offered microphone out of her face — like it was smelly feet — and proceeded to yell her objections instead. There was some clapping for her in the beginning, though the audience waned around the fifth or so minute when she somehow moved to discussing small businesses.

But it was stunning in one sense: it was the first outright blast of anger that I’d experienced over the past two weeks. I’m sure that sort of frustration exists, but most Americans are too polite to let fly. And so I’m grateful for that honest blast of incivility. It adds to the picture–and I’m sure I’ll be seeing more of it tonight, when we pitch up in Des Moines for Sarah Palin’s speech to the Iowa Republican Party.

Meanwhile, farewell to Harper Barnes–my editor at the Cambridge Phoenix in 1971, who once told me, “You have a great schmuck act,” which is a high compliment for someone who aspires to be an actual journalist–that is, someone who asks questions rather than simply opines. It’s important to feign ignorance to draw people out with questions like, “Could you explain that again to me? I didn’t understand” and also exclamations like, “No kidding! Really?” Harper was a beloved figure back in the day, and remains a beloved friend. He is a man of impeccable taste in movies, books and music. I asked him to provide a road song for the file and he suggested, “Southbound” by the Allman brothers.

Joe Klein with traveling companions Katy Steinmetz and Harper Barnes. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael - Magnum for TIME

Farewell, too, to Katy Steinmetz, sprung from her DC scheduling and fact-checking jail cell for the day. She proved a delightful traveling companion and her road song is, “Harlem” by Bill Withers. Now, back to your cell, Katy! And thanks for all you’re doing to make this trip a success. (By the way, if any of you are foolish enough to want a Joe Klein Road Trip bumper sticker, which are now available, you can appeal to Katy for one, or two–we’ve got plenty–and she’ll be happy to respond).

Now, for the highlight of the trip…my very best traveling companion, Victoria Klein, a brilliant pair of eyes and ears, who’ll be hanging out with me ’til Sunday.

This post is part of my Election Road Trip 2010 project. To track my location across the country, and read all my road trip posts, click here.