Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Harold Ford, Jr., Media Star

A few nights ago, Harold Ford, Jr. appeared as a guest on the Colbert Report, to the delight of columnists and bloggers everywhere. Depending on who you ask, the interview was "painful -- yet strangely captivating;" a "skewering;" and "[t]he most charitable thing to say about it is that it did not go well." In a word: Colbert "destroyed" Ford, Jr.

Undoubtedly, this was not a good interview. Again.

Rather than focus on the limitations of his as-of-yet unannounced candidacy, however, we should focus on the opportunities that his candidacy bring.

Think of it as community service.

I alluded to some of the lessons of his candidacy last week. Are representatives supposed to speak for us, so stand-in and say the very things that we want them to say? Or are they to act as trustees, doing what they deem best and irrespective of what we would want them to do? This is by no means an easy question, nor does it have a definitive answer. In fact, Ford's candidacy amply demonstrates that we hold conflicting views on this important issue.

Sometimes we criticize him for changing his views and pandering to a New York constituency; while other times we criticize him for misunderstanding this constituency in the first place.

Thus the opportunity: rather than criticize him for trying to squirm out of the difficult position he is in, we should engage the larger debate that his candidacy represents. To run for office in Tennessee, after all, is far different than running for office in New York state. I am afraid that it is just too much fun to watch him squirm, so the larger lessons and debates will have to wait for another day.

In fairness, he is partly at fault for this. Rather than try to make his views square up with the the electoral realities of his new state, Ford should just embrace the change and be honest about it. The evidence is clear and unassailable, and trying to re-write it only makes matters worse.

In this, he should listen to Kelli Conlin, President of NARAL Pro-Choice New York. When asked why NARAL had backed Ford initially and even gave him a 100% rating at one time, she answered: "You have to look at it in context. In the South, we're constantly looking for candidates that will be moderate and progressive. It's hard down there."

It is hard down there indeed, not just for NARAL, and context is everything.

This is all to say that Ford should just stop treating New York voters like idiots. This reminds me of President Obama's speech on race during the campaign. This is similarly a teachable moment.

While in the end he might lose all the same, at least he would do so with dignity.