Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Puzzling Case of Harold Ford, Jr.

In today's edition of the New York Times, Harold Ford, Jr. explains why he will not be challenging Senator Gillibrand for the U.S. Senate. To run in the primary would be to cripple the eventual Democratic nominee, and Ford, Jr. simply "refuse[d] to do anything that would help Republicans win a Senate seat in New York, and give the Senate majority to the Republicans."

We can certainly disagree about the sincerity of his views, and whether he stood a chance in the primary contest. From where I sit, far away from New York politics, the Harold Ford, Jr. non-campaign raises innumerable questions about the media and U.S. politics. As I think about these, I cannot help but return to the one fundamental question: why the obsession with Mr. Ford?

From the moment in early January that we heard that Mr. Ford was contemplating a challenge to Ms. Gillibrand, the attacks began slowly yet relentlessly. They came from all quarters, and even Steven Colbert joined the fray. In fairness, Mr. Ford offered an easy target. It was also great fun to boot, to watch him squirm and defend past positions in light of a changed prospective constituency.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I must note that I am a big fan of the Colbert Report AND loved the Ford interview, the way one loves an impending car crash)

The day Ford announces his decision not to enter the race, Steve Kornacki over at Salon asks "where will Harold Ford Land?" He offers four choices: the governorship of Michigan or Texas, the DC mayor's office, or the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania. It is pretty funny stuff, even worth reading.

But the whole story is still puzzling all the same. Certainly Ford is not the first candidate to relocate to New York and run for office there. Surely commentators remember Bobby Kennedy's 1964 successful Senate run, or Jim Buckley's successful run in 1970, not to mention Hillary Clinton's run in 2000. So carpetbagging can't be it.

Another reason often cited is that Harold Ford is a phony. This might be part of the answer, but cannot be all of it. After all, we are talking about politics, an arena where phoniness and flip-flopping are job requirements. It is not as if politicians have just acquired a new persona in the public imagination, yet Harold Ford somehow missed out.

Besides, as I have written before, Ford's "phoniness" is not as simple as columnists like to argue. He is a politician running for office in New York, trying to make his case to a left-of-center electorate. In his last race, for a Senate seat in Tennessee, he had to make his case to a right-of-center electorate. Now, it is obvious that his prior views must change if he stood a chance in the New York race. But the better question is, what exactly do we want to see in our ideal representative? I won't rehash this argument here. Rest assured, the argument is not terribly complicated. Unfortunately, that argument neither sells papers nor amuses readers.

I neither have the time nor the inclination to look back through prior campaigns and compare the media treatment given prior outsiders running in New York. I can sincerely say that I do not remember a similar skewering of Clinton's obvious carpetbagging. I also wonder about Kennedy and Buckley.

As I ponder the questions posed by the Ford "campaign," I think of James Fields, the Alabama state representative featured on the Sunday Times. In reaction to this piece, Guy asks: "what does it cost black elected officials (or would be elected officials) to run for office in predominantly white electoral districts in the deep South." That is a very important question to ask. The treatment of Harold Ford Jr.'s non-candidacy makes me wonder whether the question should be applied across all fifty states.