Ford’s Impossible Dream

ford 0 Fords Impossible DreamThe notion of a Harold Ford Jr. Senate campaign in New York this year—which took on new life when The New York Times reported on Tuesday night that the former Tennessee congressman is actively considering the race—smells a little of career desperation and a lot of misguided political calculation.

On one level, you have to feel some sympathy for Ford: When he started out in politics, this is not where he thought he’d be as he neared his 40th birthday. 

When he was 26—and still in law school—his father, Harold Ford. Sr., decided to end his career in the U.S. House after 11 terms. Thanks to his name, the younger Ford had no trouble succeeding him. He then spent the next decade positioning himself to move up, routinely taking positions that put him at odds with the Democratic base (and grabbing the spotlight while doing so) in an effort to position himself for a statewide campaign—which he launched in 2006, when Bill Frist opted to retire from the Senate.

That Senate campaign—launched in an optimal national environment for Democrats—was supposed to be Ford’s big moment: The Democratic tide would lift him to a narrow victory, he’d become a national star in the Senate, and talk of a future White House bid would soon follow.

Too bad he lost to Bob Corker by 3 points. Not only did that defeat arrest Ford’s charmed political ascension, it also introduced him to a harsh reality: If he couldn’t win a statewide race in Tennessee in 2006, he probably wouldn’t be able to win there ever. That is even more true now, with Barack Obama’s presidency fostering an ugly and irrational backlash among many white Southerners that is, nonetheless, politically significant.

So he left Tennessee shortly after his defeat, grabbed the chairmanship of the Democratic Leadership Council (a perch that incubated ambitious political careers—two decades ago), and landed in New York, where he cashed in with Merrill Lynch—and got cozy with the money men and women—who, according to The Times, are now ready to back him for Senate.

In Senator Kirsten Gillibrand—who has so far failed to catch on with the public and her own party (did you see the poll that put her 13 points behind Bill Thompson?!)—Ford spies an opportunity to jump-start his career and revive his lofty political dreams. He can beat her in the primary (or so he thinks), coast in the general election, and claim a seat that will be his for as long as he needs it (i.e., until it’s time for a national campaign).

Which brings us to the “misguided political calculation” aspect of this story. Here we have an amusing irony: One by one over the last year, potential Gillibrand opponents who might actually have had a chance to beat her in a primary have backed out of the race. Meanwhile, the one guy who does seem interested in taking her on—Ford—is actually one of the few Democrats who would is horribly positioned to oppose Gillibrand. 

No, this isn’t because of the carpetbagging factor—not in New York, the state that embraced Bobby Kennedy and Hillary Clinton. (Although it’s worth noting that candidates who’ve held office in one state before running in another have a dreadful track record: think James Buckley in Connecticut, Bill Brock in Maryland, Bob Smith in Florida, Bill Weld in New York, and so on.)

The bigger—and simpler—problem with a Ford campaign is that instead of exploiting Gillibrand’s chief vulnerability, it would actually mask it. Gillibrand is vulnerable within her party mainly because liberal-minded voters in and around New York City don’t like the Blue Dog streak she showed as a House member—and are just as turned off by her sudden, poll-driven embrace of liberalism when she was appointed to the Senate. In other words, there’s a massive, gaping opening to her left.

But Ford, if anything, falls to Gillibrand’s right on the political spectrum. In Tennessee in ’06, he labeled himself “pro-life” and highlighted all of the abortion restrictions he favored. He voted to ban gay marriage—and to restrict benefits to same-sex couples. He voted for the Iraq war and defended it long after it became clear what a blunder it was. He favored shielding gun manufacturers from lawsuits—hear that, Mayor Bloomberg?—and voted for the bankruptcy bill in 2005.

The wink-wink defense from Ford’s fans is that he was just doing what any Tennessee Democrat with statewide ambitions would have done—and that as a New York politician, he’d be free to chart a more progressive course. Which is exactly what Gillibrand’s supporters said about her when David Paterson plucked her from the conservative 20th District and dropped her in the U.S. Senate. At best, Ford would be left mimicking the same ideological transformation that Gillibrand has been trying to pull off. Except that she has a one-year head start on him. 

In fact, a Ford candidacy might actually bolster Gillibrand’s credentials with the Democratic base. Compared to, say, Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, progressives see Gillibrand as an insincere chameleon. But next to Ford, she might start to look like the second coming of Bella Abzug. 

And that’s not even mentioning Ford’s Wall Street baggage. Taking a sabbatical from politics to make oodles of cash while cultivating friends among the plutocracy used to be a decent career move; it sure seemed to work for Rahm Emanuel. Today—after the crash and after the bailouts—it’s poisonous. Ford’s Merrill Lynch gig—and his coziness with what is now one of the most reviled crowds in America—would be the gift that keeps on giving for Gillibrand (who, don’t forget, is armed with a very deep bankroll). 

Ford may be frustrated by his stalled political career. But a lopsided loss to Gillibrand would only make things worse for him—much worse. Here’s guessing he’ll let the air out of this trial balloon soon.