Tuesday, January 26, 2010

On the Candidacy of Harold Ford Jr.

Guy poses two questions on Harold Ford, Jr.'s impending primary challenge: has he correctly read the political tea leaves within the state of New York; and, if he fails, is his political career over?

I am not sure how to answer either one. If pressed, I'd say that he is on the wrong side of public opinion. It is also a safe bet that a failure to win the Democratic nomination would end his political career.

But his challenge to Senator Gillibrand is much more interesting than that.

Take first the early criticisms from the left. Criticisms against Senator Gillibrand focused on her centrist and right-of-center positions on issues ranging from gun control to immigration reform. Any primary challenger hoping to unseat her would need to bring an attack from the left. This would be difficult for Ford, whose last race was state-wide, and in Tennessee no less. This is when we saw him telling Tucker Carlson, " "I'm pro-life, I'm pro-life, so I mean, I don't run from that." He also flaunted his vote for the PATRIOT Act, defense spending, and opposition for amnesty for illegals immigrants. Try running away from that. This would be a tall order even for Winston Smith.

Yet I choose to view in a more forgiving way. In fact, Ford's Senate candidacy in Tennessee and his primary challenge in New York ask us to think hard about the concept of representation. What is it that we want and expect from our politicians? One view is that we want them to represent us, their constituents, and if they don't, we are ready to hold them accountable for their votes and positions. A competing view sees politicians as Burkean trustees, holding views independent of those held by their constituents and ready to carry them out even if it means losing future elections.

In recent days, Ford has changed some of his earlier views on some of these volatile and controversial issues. For example, he has recently changed his position on same-sex marriage and on the abortion question. Senator Gillibrand's positions similarly evolved once she was appointed to the Senate. To some, Ford's policy shifts underscore his "soullessness" and "deceit," as well as his willingness to humiliate himself in his quest for public office. Maybe. But isn't this what a representative, or a candidate running for office, should do? He is either out of touch, for sticking to his guns, or pandering, if he changes his views.

I was prepared to write this entry late last week. In the meantime, Ford wrote an op-ed for the New York Times where he called for, among other things, tax cuts and malpractice reform. This is either a statesmanlike display of his views or sheer foolishness. Over at Salon, Alex Koppelman nails the issue in the head: "[Ford] doesn't seem to realize that he'll be running in his new home state of New York and not in Tennessee." Pandering is thus expected of somebody running for statewide office; you just need to know who you are pandering to. Harold Ford Jr.'s sin, to go back to Guy's initial question, is not that he is shifting his views, but that he is misreading the relevant electorate.

I then came upon his N.Y. Times interview, which Glen Greenwald has labeled "cringe-inducing" and Peter Beinart at Daily Beast has called "the most embarrassing interview I’ve ever read by a politician not named Sarah Palin." This is where Ford declined to disclose how much Merril Lynch pays him and where he exhorted the virtues of capitalism and his belief that "people take risk, and there are rewards if they do well; they should lose if they don't" while at the same time blasting Senator Gillibrand's opposition to the taxpayer bailout of the financial industry. Come again? At the very least, nobody can accuse him of pandering on this issue. He also redefined what it means to be "pro-life" and acknowledged visiting all five New York City boroughs "by helicopter."

To end where Guy began: this interview reminds me of some professors all three of us encountered at Michigan Law: very smart, to be sure, even brilliant.

And maybe a little too smooth, with a tad of crazy.