To most people who were paying relatively close attention, the week that just ended was another successful news week for Harold Ford Jr., the Memphis congressman who became a major political luminary in stunningly short order after succeeding his namesake father as representative of Tennessee's 9th congressional district in 1997. There Democrat Ford was in a photo-op, expressing solicitude for East Asian tsunami victims in tandem with House Republican majority whip Roy Blunt. There he was again in Clarksville and Fort Campbell, meeting military returnees from Iraq. And there he was, too, all over the mainstream media maps, being written or talked about as a U.S. Senate aspirant in 2006 and even being speculated on, here and there, as a potential presidential candidate in the nation's short- or long-term future.
What, then, did the Web site Feedster.com, a kind of specialized political search engine, mean last weekend by posting, under the head "Harold Ford can't find a friend," this teaser: "Harold Ford Jr. continues to get press, but it's the wrong kind?" And why did poorandstupid.com, a right-oriented Web site, feel obliged to say, by way of protest, "The stoning of Harold Ford begins?"
Well, consider: In the ever-mushrooming cluster of well-read left-of-center sites that focus on politics and politicians, Harold Ford Jr. was having to endure a tsunami of his own. Like the real one that ultimately exploded with such catastrophic effect from a massive underwater earthquake, this one too has begun under the surface but will sooner or later surely make waves. To the denizens of the blogosphere, it already has. The cause? Ford's suspected sympathy for the cause of privatizing Social Security.
On eschaton.com, Ford was entered into the "Social Security Wall of Shame." On a Weblog run by African-American activist Steve Gilliard, he was called (among other, more impolite comments) "Sammy Glick on the Hill." One Philip G. on the well-read DailyKos.com site described Ford as "a self-serving and opportunistic DLC [Democratic Leadership Council] traitor to Democratic and progressive causes -- a complete sellout." The respected blogger Joshua Micah Marshall, who doubles as a columnist for Washington Monthly, anointed Ford on talkingpointsmemo.com as "Dean of the [Democrats'] Fainthearted Faction" for appearing to favor privatization of Social Security and, suggesting that Ford was merely tailoring his views to conservative Tennessee voters in advance of his proposed 2006 U.S. Senate run, weighed in with this withering bit of satire in an open letter to the congressman:
... If you want to pull up a seat with the real power players, being cynical ain't enough. You've gotta be cynical and smart. I was chatting with a friend of yours today. And he says he figures you're probably just not with it enough to realize that this isn't much of a way to appeal to Democrats-turned-Republicans in your state. But, dude, I've got your back. He may not be enough of a friend to tell you. But I am, whatever I may be saying about you in the public posts.
Like I said, gay marriage? Iraq? Those are some issues with some mileage in them. And like I said, if you're going to be cynical, get some mileage out of it, right?
Picture this placard -- Harold Ford: Man Enough to Know That a Man Shouldn't Marry a Man.
Right? Right? That's great stuff. Or maybe, this -- Harold Ford: Putting the "Christ" back into Christmas.
Even on Ford's own home turf, his presumed position as a closet Social Security privatizer made him the target of angry barrages emanating from a host of local left-of-center e-mail networkers. "To think I voted for this guy!" complained one local Democrat. "I may just start a damned recall petition," suggested a veteran Memphis-area blogger. But all of this invective was as nothing compared to a Web site contribution from one Glen Ford (no relation), a Jersey City polemicist writing in blackcommentator.com, a site which purports to offer "commentary, analysis, and investigations on issues affecting African Americans."
Glen Ford's piece, entitled "Black Point Man for the Right," posted last week and already receiving wide circulation via the AlterNet news service, is a take-no-prisoners frontal assault on Representative Ford, focusing like the other recent critics on the Social Security issue but extrapolating on what he sees as the Memphis congressman's general villainy:
The black body politic has been invaded by corporate money, which seeks through its media arms to select a "new" black leadership from among a small group of compliant and corrupt Democrats. Memphis Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. is a principal vector of the disease, an eager acolyte of the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and now the point man among black Democrats in the Republican mission to destroy Social Security.
Ford should also be known as the "Black Man Who Dances With Blue Dogs" -- one of only two black congressional members of the Blue Dog Democratic Coalition.
Glen Ford derides Harold Ford's appearance last year at a forum on Social Security sponsored by a number of lobbies and advocacy groups (Centrists.org, the Concord Coalition, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget at the New America Foundation, and the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security) which he itemizes as different kinds of "fronts" along the right-wing spectrum and refers to generically as "slaves of corporate funding."
The Congressman has journeyed far afield to inhabit a Neverland much more dangerous and alien to black interests than anything Michael Jackson could conjure or imagine. Harold Ford has crossed over to the corporate side of the world, beyond redemption ... . The Bush administration's assault on the last bastion of the American social safety net can be repulsed, but only if we reject the Trojan horses who have been positioned in black ranks -- most notably, Harold Ford. The deplorable state of black media has set charlatans like Ford free to trot around the country, forging alliances with Republicans and Dixiecrats at will. Ford was among the "Four Eunuchs" of the Congressional Black Caucus who endorsed George Bush's Iraq War powers, in October 2002. He was reelected the next month, and two years after that, as were the three other eunuchs.
There seems to be no accountability in black politics, no incisive coverage of political figures on black radio and effective print media (forget television), and no reliable campaign contributions except from the corporate sector and stingy labor unions. In this environment, media caricatures like Harold Ford thrive. The virus spreads, undermining the Black Political Consensus that nevertheless propels 90 percent of us in the same direction, every presidential election ... .
In a telephone interview this week, Glen Ford made a point of distinguishing between Harold Ford, the would-be senator from Tennessee, and Barack Obama, the newly elected senator from Illinois. Making the kind of comparison between the two ascendant African Americans that Representative Ford is known to find offensive, Glen Ford basically pronounced Obama the Real Deal, a self-starting, up-from-the-ranks activist, while regarding the Memphis congressman as no more than an "opportunist" who was "fathered in" to his place in the political spectrum. (It should be noted that Glen Ford professes admiration for ex-Representative Ford Sr.) Taking note of periodic rumors that Harold Ford is the object of conversion efforts by Republicans, Glen Ford opined, "The Republicans don't want Ford to switch parties. They want to infect black ranks with 'a new black leadership' that is corporate."
Josh Marshall, while skeptical about Representative Ford's intentions, is somewhat less prosecutorial than Glen Ford. In a telephone interview this week, he put it this way: "The sense I get is that he [Representative Ford] is very wedded to views on taxation and Social Security and basic taxing-and-spending issues that suppose a lot of the positions Democrats believe in to be old-fashioned. Probably Medicare, as well, and a whole set of bread-and-butter issues. I think instinctively, too, he thinks a lot of the positions the Republicans take are better and more modern, and that's related to his trying to rise in politics. He sees it as important to cast himself as the new 'modern Democrat.' So he ends up wedded at least to the principle of private accounts in Social Security. He's been trying to pick off issues. But now it's got to the point that it's counterproductive."
Social Security, says Marshall, is a "bedrock issue" for Democrats that goes far toward defining what the party is all about. "Plus, the Democratic position is the popular one." Washingtonian Marshall continues: "Half my family comes from southern Illinois. It's pretty indistinguishable from states that border it. I defy people to find the rural, red-leaning district in the South or anywhere else where 'Social Security' is a bad word. It's right on principle and right on politics."
Marshall is troubled by what he sees as Ford's impact on other Democrats. "Unfortunately, from my perspective, Democrats aren't as big in Congress. Obviously, there are fewer of them. But compared to 10 years ago, there's more unity on some basic issues. Half a dozen years ago, there were a lot more Democrats who had positions like Harold Ford's on Social Security. There are very few now."
Glen Ford, the most determined and thoroughgoing of Rep. Ford's current critics, and Marshall, arguably the most influential, have contrasting but, in some ways, overlapping views of Harold Ford's political future. In his Black Commentator piece, Glen Ford concluded this way: "Harold Ford styles himself as the candidate of youth. However, we know that greed and ambition are as old as dirt." And, asked this week whom he would side with in a 2006 Senate race pitting Representative Ford as the Democratic nominee against a Republican nominee whose views would be more explicitly aligned with the Bush administration, Glen Ford pondered the matter and responded as follows: "A right-wing Democrat, even one like Ford, would have a better voting record than a Republican. But Ford presents a particular danger to the black body politic, because he presents himself as a model. He encourages other black politicians to go rightward in hopes of winning office. He disparages what we at Black Commentator call the 'black political consensus,' a very progressive one. He's saying, in effect, 'Stop representing your community so you can achieve higher office.' All that must be weighed in the balance."
As it happens, Harold Ford has an already declared Democratic opponent in the 2006 U.S. Senate primary: state senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville. Asked last week for her own position on Social Security reform, Kurita said it was an issue she would "have to study" but added, "I'm not in favor of denying working people the benefits they've been led to expect."
"Maybe she's a DLC-er, too," concludes Glen Ford. "Well, in that case, I'd rather have the white DLC-er!"
Marshall seems to be on the same page. "If he [Representative Ford] is on the wrong side of the issue, people may go with the challenger or low-ball his support." Marshall says he normally is concerned, in the well-worn catch phrase, that the perfect can be enemy of the good. "Between Al Gore and Ralph Nader, I would never have chosen Nader. I'm always against protest candidates. We should try to elect the best person possible -- stress on 'possible.' But I feel that certain issues are so fundamental that you should take a risk. Democratic Party morale needs a definition, clear indicators as to what the party is all about."
If Ford becomes the Democratic nominee for the Senate in 2006, Marshall says, "it's extremely important that he wins the seat. But I also think the Democratic Party needs to do things to get a meaningful majority. If, God forbid, Harold Ford became the nominee and lost because of other Democrats' reaction to him, that could still be an example more meaningful than a single seat. It would be terrible if he went down to defeat but good for the Democratic Party in the long run."
In those parts of the political and media universe where the debate over Harold Ford's Social Security positions is raging, both Ford's prosecutors and his defenders proceed from some of the same assumptions -- essentially, that Ford, an acknowledged member of the congressional "Blue Dog" caucus, one comprising Democratic conservatives, is in general agreement with President Bush's angle on Social Security reform. Specifically, the president -- bent on achieving reform this year -- has suggested allowing workers to allocate a portion of their Social Security tax for the creation of private investment accounts.
This approach, says Bush, is needed to stave off long-term insolvency and "save" Social Security. Au contraire, say Ford's critics, who contend that the president's proposal amounts to a form of creeping privatization, one that will undermine the solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund in the long run and may be intended, by the conservative president and various supportive ideologues of the Right, to do just that. Glen Ford, Marshall, and the rest of the pack now in hot rhetorical pursuit of Representative Ford maintain that the congressman is giving aid and comfort to the political enemy, both by addressing its conclaves and seconding the far Right's war cries on Social Security.
Ford's critics point to remarks like this one, made by the congressman to the aforementioned forum on Social Security sponsored last year by several conservative organizations: "I'm 33 years old, and many in my generation will tell you they're not expecting to be able to rely on Social Security." And they cite a remark quoted by the Nashville Scene in a 2004 cover-story profile of the congressman: "I'm a Democrat because I think we are more often right," Ford told the paper in March. "But there are some things some Democrats believe that I don't. I don't think government is an insurance program." That last statement in particular has been seized upon by several of the congressman's current attackers as clear evidence of his apostasy.
In his Web site article, Glen Ford says the statement "reveals that [Ford] either misunderstands or opposes the very premise of Social Security, which is an insurance program against the vicissitudes of the stock market." In this week's telephone conversation, he said flatly, "If he opposes government insurance programs, he opposes Social Security."
Adding fuel to the fires of his Democratic critics' discontent is a chorus of support Ford appears to be receiving from the political Right. There are a great many bloggers on that part of the spectrum, too, and they tend to be supportive of the Memphis congressman amid the current onslaught. Says the proprietor of jane.blogspot.com, a conservative-oriented Weblog: "Sigh. Oh how boring the Left is rapidly becoming I'm telling you, Lieberman and Harold Ford, Jr. are the wave of the future. Welcome to the 21st Century!" Adds the proprietor of another right-wing site, poorandstupid.com: "Representative Harold Ford, the courageous black congressman who recognizes the truth that personal accounts for Social Security will empower the poor and the disenfranchised more than anyone else in our society, is being condemned for departure from Democratic partisan orthodoxy."
And there was the famous encouragement given to Ford in 2003 by archconservative columnist Robert Novak at a time when the Memphis congressman was said to be considering cosponsoring Social Security reform legislation offered by then Representative -- now Senator -- Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican. A statement Ford made at the time is frequently cited by the congressman's critics as evidence that he -- like Bush and like the CATO Institute, a right-wing think tank which has floated its own proposal, praising Ford in the process -- is an exponent of privatizing Social Security.
Relevant portions of that statement are as follows: "Representative DeMint has a proposal that would allow workers to begin building wealth by investing part of their Social Security taxes in individual retirement accounts. The accounts would be administered within the Social Security Administration. His plan is progressive, allowing low-income workers to invest a larger portion of their taxes. It would allow assets to be passed on from generation to generation ... . Designing a Social Security reform plan is the first step, and Representative DeMint has designed a good one."
Glen Ford, Marshall, and other current Ford critics have extrapolated from that declaration and other segments of the statement that Ford is on board with the president and with Social Security privatizers like DeMint, notwithstanding that Ford ultimately opted out of cosponsoring the DeMint legislation and that, perhaps partly in response to the recent barrage of criticism, he released this statement last week: "I do not support changing the Social Security system as has been proposed by President Bush, nor do I support Social Security proposals advanced by the CATO Institute. In fact, both of these proposals have the potential to harm current beneficiaries by paying for the transition costs by issuing debt. Piling on more red ink to the existing federal budget deficit and the national debt will do both long and short term harm to our economy. I do believe that the system needs to be reformed but I do not support changing the Social Security system as President Bush has proposed."
After an initial willingness of some of Ford's critics to accept the statement in good faith, second thoughts on their part produced renewed attacks -- focusing on the last sentence, expressing Ford's continued belief that Social Security needs reforming. There is an increasing consensus among the defenders of traditional Social Security, led by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, to the effect that alarms about a pending "crisis" in Social Security are misleading at best and purposely so at worst and that the system seems destined to remain solvent at least until far off in the century. (Krugman suggests 2052, in a worst-case scenario.)
Granted, they say, claims on the system by retiring baby-boomers in the relatively near future will at some point exceed revenues paid in by participating workers. But they maintain, using sometimes complicated analyses too extensive to present here, that the system is self-adjusting and that -- again, worst-case scenario -- modifications will not be required until mid-century and only slight ones then. If there is a problem, the Social Security traditionalists say in virtual unison, it stems from such threats as President Bush's deficit-creating tax cuts or from the administration's over-wieldy and costly Medicare prescription-drugs bill passed just last year.
Reached by telephone this week, Representative Ford expressed disagreement with some of this analysis but, surprisingly, agreement with much of it as well. And, in fairness, those of his critics who cite his prepared statement last year on the DeMint bill may have misread the import of some of it. Alternatively, the politically nimble Ford may simply have been too equivocal for his own good.
One relevant portion of that statement goes as follows: "Representative DeMint's proposal would allow current workers to direct their payroll taxes to their own retirement accounts. Therefore, without cutting benefit levels or raising payroll taxes -- as the DeMint plan promises not to do -- the funds that pay for current benefits have to be replaced. Something has to give." This statement seems, when parsed carefully along with the rest of what Ford said, to be an objection to the concept of using employees' Social Security taxes per se as the source of private accounts. And Ford in his telephone interview was explicit on the point, denying that he does now, or ever did, advocate tapping payroll taxes to create the accounts. (For more of what Ford has proposed along the lines of private investment accounts, see "Politics," p. 11.)
Taken at face value, this would justify Ford's insistence that he does not advocate anything like a true "privatizing" of Social Security. He maintains that he has been misunderstood. "The only kind of Social Security accounts I've ever advocated was the same thing that Bill Clinton and Al Gore talked about. It's what Gore called 'Social Security Plus' in 2000 and what Clinton called 'universal savings accounts.'" These proposals, Ford points out, were hatched during a time of surplus, a time that has long since passed. Even in his statement last year concerning the DeMint plan, Ford noted, "We are now faced with exploding deficits that will endure for the foreseeable future ... . With an occupation of Iraq that has cost $150 billion and counting, expiring tax cuts that many want to make permanent, a promise to our seniors to pay for prescription drugs, an Alternative Minimum Tax descending on the middle class, the unfunded mandate of the No Child Left Behind Act, and a host of unmet homeland security needs, it is unclear how we will be able to front the money for individual Social Security accounts."
And the congressman was quite explicit this week about disavowing not only President Bush's Social Security reform proposals but the concept underlying it. "I have not signed on to any legislation, since I have been in Congress to take money from Social Security to create private accounts. I do not favor privatizing Social Security. I am opposed to President Bush's attempt to do so. Categorically," he said. "The president's plan to privatize Social Security will not accomplish what he says he wants to accomplish. It will add too much debt and it will offset any gains that people would make from their accounts because interest rates would skyrocket and benefits would be reduced and the program would run out of money." As it happens, these are the same arguments that Bush's critics -- and Ford's -- have been making consistently of late.
Ford insists that his own proposals for investment accounts would involve general revenues, not those of the Social Security fund, and could be achieved through progressive tax legislation, overturning the effects of the Bush tax cuts of the last several years. It may be that Ford's carefully cultivated reputation as a "Blue Dog" Democrat -- potentially useful to him in a statewide race -- has generated a backlash among traditional Democrats. Or it may also be that Ford has, in fact, shifted to the political right. Glen Ford maintains that evaluation of Ford's legislative voting record by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action went from a 100 percent rating in 1997, his first year in Congress, to 60 percent the next.
When in late 2002 Ford unsuccessfully challenged California representative Nancy Pelosi, a member of the Democratic orthodoxy, for the job of House Minority Leader, he got less support from his fellow Democrats than he wanted. But support came from other, unexpected quarters. Decrying "the hostility Ford's bid to lead House Democrats provoked from backward-looking members of the older generation of black activists and politicians, including some of his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus," Time magazine Web site columnist Jack E. White opined that Ford's revisionist views were just what the doctor ordered for the jaded Democrats. And favorable response came from the other side of the aisle. "If the GOP has any sense at all, they'll throw everything they can muster at getting Harold Ford, Jr. to switch parties," averred theagitator.com, a conservative Web site. Indeed, several Republicans and their friends in the media have thrown a few blandishments at the congressman, and his response to such flattering offers, while amounting to a firm no, finally, may have been couched in terms that were too appreciative and too coy for his own political good.
It's just possible that, in the line made immortal by Strothers Martin, the hardscrabble actor who played a prison warden in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, "What we got here is a failure to communicate." If so, then the political realities of the near future -- both in the context of congressional debate on Social Security and in that of Ford's 2006 Senate race-to-be, will make things -- in a phrase made famous a generation ago by another perpetually beleaguered politician -- perfectly clear.