Most of these have been generalized background queries. Some have been more targeted, and, in a coincidence that is almost starling, today brings questions from more than one New York source about a single speech delivered by Ford, then a second-term U.S. representative from the 9th District, in Apriil 1999.
The speech, before a Memphis Rotary Club luncheon, showed 29-year-old Democrat Ford — who had months before been described by the New York Times as a "black centrist" — in a very, very conservative light, tending so far right as to sound almost like a traditional Republican.
The queries we received from New York reflected interest in the then-congressman's statements advocating a lifting of the ban on corporate contributions to political campaigns — something that has just this week been accomplished by action of the U.S. Supreme Court. But, in the retrospect of more than a decade, we ourselves appreciate being reminded of just how early Ford's turn to the political right had begun.
Herewith is the column, as it appeared in our issue of April 15-21, 1999 — or those portions of it dealing with Ford.
(The column's second half concerns an equally eyebrow-raising move to the political left by then Governor Don Sundquist, a Republican, and interested readers can read the whole column here via this URL:
Crossing the Lines
Ford Jr. poaches on the GOP’s turf, while Sundquist heads in the other direction.
by Jackson Baker
Is this a pre-millennial phenomenon or what? Increasingly, influential public figures are departing their parties’ fixed ideological positions and grazing for new ideas over on the other side of the partisan battle lines.
Two recent examples, each happening in a different direction:
Left to Right: For the few hundred mainly moderate-to-conservative Memphians on hand last week at a Downtown Rotary Club luncheon, it was almost a throwback to the heady days of the Contract With America, circa 1995.
Up there was a fresh-pressed yuppie-looking congressman talking up the flat tax, charter schools, pay-as-you-go economics, and conditional tax cuts. He advocated a lifting of the ban on campaign donations from corporations, bragged on former congressman Bob Livingston, a Louisiana Republican who “would have been one heck of a Speaker” had he not resigned after allegations of sexual misconduct, and criticized the Clinton administration for the weakness of its foreign policy.
What spawn of Newt Gingrich might this have been?
Well, truth to tell, it wasn’t like that. This was Harold Ford Jr., the second-term 9th District Democratic congressman from Memphis, successor in the House of Representatives to his father and namesake, Harold Ford Sr., who could always be found among the ranks of liberal urban Democrats.
The son and heir — perhaps looking to a statewide race earlier than almost anyone expected, or maybe just taking pains to build his name throughout Tennessee — has been in East Tennessee of late and was in Nashville on Monday, preaching much the same gospel as he brought to the Memphis Rotarians on Tuesday, a message of moderation that, a few scant months ago, caused him to be written about in The New York Times Magazine and celebrated on its cover as a “black centrist.”
“I’m a ‘New Democrat.’ I like to spend money, but we ought to be able to pay the bills at the end of the day, and we ought to hold people accountable,” said Rep. Ford at Rotary.
And: “Some of us moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans are trying to find ways to heal and to bridge that chasm and to close that gap [between the parties].”
And (quoting John Maynard Keynes): “The difficulty lies not in developing new ideas but in escaping the old ones. We have a lot of old ideas to escape from.”
Some of those “old ideas” are those very dear to most Democrats — the sacrosanctness of the public schools, for example, and the clear distinction between them — as objects of governmental largesse — and private educational institutions. But quoth Ford Jr.:
“We need to look at alternative ways to teach kids. I’ve taken some hits even from friends of mine, locally. But the only loyalty I have, the only chips I have in the game are our children. If charter schools teach them, let’s go with charter schools. If public schools teach them, let’s go with public schools. If private schools can do it, go with private schools. We’ve got to move beyond the rhetoric that envelops this discussion and deal with the facts, deal with the reality.”
What about some of those basic alterations in the nation’s tax structure which Republicans insist upon? “I’m not opposed to the flat tax. I think that would be the way to simplify things considerably. I support tax cuts. I’m a New Democrat. I don’t want to pay any more than I have to pay.” The congressman adds a proviso, it should be said, that positions him against immediate tax cuts — namely, that obligations to Social Security and Medicare, as well as payments on the national debt (currently standing at $2.5 trillion), preclude any across-the-board reductions now.
Ford does, however, join in the Republican call for elimination of the so-called marriage tax, and he agrees that businesses are entitled to a 20 percent flat-rate tax credit for research and development. He also called for a presidentially appointed national commission to study revisions in the tax code.
Ford credits President Clinton with pragmatic policies that have resulted in the nation’s current sustained economic boom. But he does not shrink from criticism of the president, whether during last year’s Monicagate affair or with his current call for Clinton to make “a stronger, more forceful, more articulate case” for the actions in Kosovo.
Much of the congressman’s political sea change (if that is what it is) would seem attributable to his interest in making a statewide race — possibly as soon as 2000, against incumbent Republican Senator Bill Frist. Certainly, his recent travels seem designed to draw the attention of party activists and donors statewide.
Why else would a Memphis-area congressman make a point of touring the new Tennessee Titans’ stadium — now nearing completion in Nashville — as Ford did on Monday and then offer a defense of the team and its host city to an audience in his home city, still peevish about being so badly upstaged on the sports front?
“Let me remind you, Nashville went out and bought them a team. We shouldn’t be angry with them,” Ford told the Rotarians, arguably attempting to elevate himself above parochial jealousies and intra-state rivalries.
It may be that Ford — whose financial cupboard is bare just now and whose safe congressional seat is a fair launching pad in itself — means only to ensure that he keeps being talked about.
His new rhetoric won’t hurt in that regard....
(The column can be read in its entirely here.)