Ford proved that as long ago as 2000 when, assigned by presidential nominee Al Gore to give the keynote address at that yearÕs Democratic convention, he declined to lip-sync the grateful Person-of-Color litany provided for him by the Gore camp. Instead he delivered a paean to centrist, yuppie values that was written in part by well-known Republican consultant Frank Luntz Ðthe same Frank Luntz who is famous (or infamous) just now as the author of the Bush administrationÕs playbook on the Social Security issue.
The congressman, a proud member of the conservative Blue Dog caucus, has based his congressional career on conspicuous triangulations of issues ranging from Iraq to tax cuts to, most recently, bankruptcy legislation Ð on all of which he has appeared to his critics to be splitting the difference with the GOP administration.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in what he has had to say over the years about Social Security. FordÕs prolonged flirtation with the idea of investment add-ons drew fire from his partyÕs traditionalists Ð so much of it that he was finally compelled to condemn privatization per se, or at least the version of it, advocated by President Bush, that would draw upon the Social Security tax.
Ford has continued to dabble with innovative formulas, however, and he elaborated on one Friday morning in the lobby of the Cannon Center after Bush, currently on an extended road show, had pitched his privatization scheme to a Memphis audience.
The congressman, who has introduced a bill Ð the ASPIRE Act -- that would confer a government-funded birth grant to newborns to be used for investment purposes, suggested that the president should think about something similar if he wants to alter the structure of Social Security.
That is, any investment add-on should not only be funded from sources other than the Social Security tax but should have a progressive component, like that contained in ASPIRE, whereby citizens below a defined poverty line could expect proportionately greater investment fodder.
Ford then made an even more striking suggestion concerning investment accounts. ÒWhat happens if people lose? Will some kind of Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation be created?Ó he asked Ð making the case for a governmental machinery that would cushion against losses occurring through bad investments in sour lemons like Enron and WorldCom. For a Fail-Safe mechanism that would allow profit but prevent unreasonable loss
Ford and Senator Joe Lieberman and a relatively few other Democrats have made their party-mates and other defenders of Social Security nervous through their professed willingness to avoid Just Saying No. The Bush administration has, after all, consistently pursued a strategy in every controversy so far of Divide and Conquer through ÒbipartisanÓ negotiations that, many Democrats believe, were more apparent than real.
It is not impossible, however, that some of the innovative notions that Ford and a few others insist on putting forth could reverse that momentum. If Wall Street saw that its stake did not depend on dismantling the New Deal, after all, maybe BushÕs coalition, not the DemocratsÕ, is the one that would weaken.
Maybe so, maybe no. But, to give Ford the benefit of the doubt, maybe itÕs worth thinking about.
Corker Not the Man? Van or Ed Instead?
Not only is Rep. Ford an office-holder whose views are heeded in Washington and elsewhere, he is also a likely Democratic candidate in the high-profile U.S. Senate race to be run in Tennessee in 2006.
That seat, which will be vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist, has attracted several other aspirants -- State Senator Rosalind Kurita, among Democrats; and, so far among Republicans, former U.S. Reps. Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant; state Representative Beth Harwell of Nashville; and Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker.
Corker, who ran for the Senate in 1994 but has maintained a relatively low statewide profile since, is rumored to have the support of the state's Republican establishment. He is said to be getting some stroking in Washington and has raised upwards of $ 2 million so far, easily tops in the field..
Ford discounts his chances, however. "I don't think he'll get the nomination," the congressman said Saturday. "I think Bryant or Van Hilleary will. It doesn't matter how much money you have if people don't know you."