Harold Ford, Back Again

“What threatens our party right now is an attitude that business is bad,” Harold Ford Jr. told an overflow crowd in the West Village last night. “It’s wrong, it’s un-American and frankly I think it’s un-little-D democratic.”

Mr. Ford was sweating beneath the glaring movie lights at Bennett Media Studios on Washington Street, re-emerging from a few months out of the public eye following a brief but bitter flirtation with the notion that he might be able to beat Kirsten Gillibrand out of her U.S. Senate seat. (He arrived with his press consultant, Davidson Goldin, who had lobbed some of the harshest attacks on Ms. Gillibrand.)

The timing seemed slightly odd—more three months had passed since he abandoned his Senate bid, and it was still two months before the release of his new book, More Davids than Goliaths—but the invitation had been discussed back when he was still a potential candidate, and was just now coming to fruition. (The event was hosted by Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century—DL21C—not to be confused with the Democratic Leadership Council—DLC—which Mr. Ford chairs.)

“We find ourselves at a weird moment,” proclaimed Mr. Ford, who, after declaring himself a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, proceeded to tweak the party on education, health care, energy and—in particular—the economy.

The short-term problem, he said, was a lack of jobs. And the long-term problem was that Democrats might be perceived as anti-business.

“Sometimes Democrats act as if cutting taxes is a bad thing. We are a capitalistic society. People are moved by the idea of doing better,” he said.

That appeared to include Mr. Ford himself, who—in response to a question about why he chose to leave public life for Merrill Lynch—said he didn’t come to New York looking for a job in the financial world, but found himself “fascinated” by capital markets.

“I thought it was not only an opportunity to learn, but also an opportunity to make a living,” he said. “I didn’t go into it to make a difference in that sense. I’m often tickled when I hear people say, ‘I chose politics. I could have gone and made a lot of money, but I chose not to.’ As if making a lot of money—and I don’t make a lot of money—but it’s not evil.” (Mr. Ford’s salary was, according to a February report in The Times, more than $2 million.) “I chair a group called the DLC, I teach at NYU and I hope to make differences that way,” he said.

Mr. Ford’s policy prescriptions were unabashedly market-driven. He spoke in support of charter schools, criticized the leadership of some teacher unions, said public employee contracts would have to be renegotiated and said President Obama should have passed an energy bill—with all the new jobs it could create—before he tackled health care.

“I hope sincerely that over the coming months as we get past these elections that the president and Democrats will surround themselves and be willing to listen more to CEOs and businesspeople and others who’ve created jobs,” he said.

It looked as if he might throw a little chunk of partisan red meat to the crowd when he brought up Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner’s proposal—floated yesterday—to increase the qualifying age for Social Security to 70 years old. But, no.

“I didn’t see all the details around it, but I think that there is some merit to that idea,” Ford said. He proposed everyone under 45—along with those who make enough money not to need Social Security—sign a pledge to push back their own benefits. “I think Americans, under 45 years old, all of us should be willing to sign a pledge, for the simple reason that we are the most blessed, freest, richest generation of Americans who have ever lived.”

The crowd of young professionals seemed to enjoy the speech. After he was done, Mr. Ford smiled for pictures and signed autographs.

“I watch Morning Joe every morning, and you’re my favorite,” one young woman told him. Outside, his black town car idled and his driver waited by the door.

Did Mr. Ford have any regrets about not running—especially with financial reform being such a timely issue, and with others in the New York delegation rallying to champion Wall Street in recent weeks?

“No,” he said. “There are a bunch of issues on the table. I enjoy—I get invited to a lot of this—not only being a part of the conversation, but trying to help shape the conversation.”

As for his future electoral prospects like, say, another Gillibrand challenge in 2012?

“That’s way far ahead, man,” he said. “I haven’t even thought about it.”

Harold Ford, Back Again