The image of Ford hard at work in his new office, surrounded by half-unpacked boxes, calls up a common metaphor that Ford and others have used to describe his political outlook: He is perhaps one of the most difficult politicians around to put into a predictable ideological “box.” Though a true-blue Democrat, he is also very much his own man.

“He is an example of someone who, in some ways, is too good for politics,” says Frank Luntz C’84, the Republican pollster and cable-TV focus-group maven who taught political science at Penn as an adjunct professor in the early 1990s. (Ford and another former student turned Democratic political operative, Kenneth Baer C’94, make cameo appearances in Luntz’s recent book, Words That Work. In a chapter setting out 10 rules of “effective language,” Luntz tells a story the thrust of which is that Ford delivered his well-received, centrist keynote speech at the 2000 Democratic Convention after Luntz had read and been “appalled” by the partisan address that Baer, then a Gore speechwriter, had crafted for him.)

“He doesn’t play the game the way everybody does, or do it the way everyone does,” Luntz continues. “He’s his own guy, and he tells you exactly what he thinks and feels, regardless of the personal consequences, and that’s why so many people like him, but it also has made his political life more difficult on occasion.

“He’s in the center, in the mainstream of politics … and in party politics, being in the center is not a good thing.”

At times, Ford’s approach seems to be a matter of framing a position on a polarizing issue in non-confrontational terms. For example, Ford characterizes himself as pro-life, and supports a ban on partial-birth abortion, but on his website, he says that his strong Baptist faith informs his perhaps bigger-tent position that he “will continue to work to eliminate abortions in our country without criminalizing what is undoubtedly one of the most tormenting and difficult decisions a woman will ever have to make.”

And while many of Ford’s positions track prevailing national Democratic views—he opposes the death penalty, supports universal health care coverage, and is against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—others definitely do not.

For example, while Ford is no Joe Lieberman (whom, however, unlike many other national figures in his party, he endorsed over Democratic nominee Ned Lamont in the Connecticut Senate race), he has been one of the few Democratic voices telling other Democrats to be more supportive of the war in Iraq. This even as party activists have steadily raised the bar for candidates in terms of opposing the war and calling for a withdrawal of troops.

In January he wrote:

 

“Democrats should not adopt an ‘I told you so’ approach after the Iraq Study Group’s central finding that the situation in Iraq is dire and that we need to change course. Positive and concrete options are needed—including careful consideration of partitioning the country—to bring enough stability and security to Iraq to convert it from civil war to independence. The Iraq Study Group’s 79 recommendations are a good start, but we should not be afraid to be even bolder if that is what it takes to get things right. Any solution in Iraq may require sending more troops in the short-term to stem the violence—but we should do so only if Iraqis demonstrate the willingness and the ability to rebuild their own country now. With a consensus plan in place and a realistic endgame in sight, the American people will unite behind a greater short-term commitment.

 

More recently, as debate heated up over linking funding for the war to a deadline for withdrawal, Ford continued to stress the need for opponents of the Bush Administration’s Iraq policies, up to and including the “surge” in combat troops, to propose their own “Plan B” for salvaging the situation rather than simply setting timetables for getting out. To that end, in an op-ed originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Ford called for redefining the U.S. mission in Iraq as “one of training, anti-terrorism operations, and deterrence of foreign intervention and wide-scale ethnic cleansing, while supporting internal and regional efforts to reach a political settlement of ethnic conflicts in the country.” Such a shift in course would by its nature result in a significant drawdown of combat troops—similar to those foreseen in many “deadline for withdrawal” proposals, he said—but without compromising U.S. security interests, triggering a full-scale civil war, or handing extremists a propaganda victory.

“A precipitous withdrawal,” he added, would drive Iraq into the arms of Iran and open the possibility that the country could become a staging area for future terrorist attacks. “A rapid and complete withdrawal from Iraq isn’t really a ‘Plan B’; it’s a ‘Plan Zero’ for liquidating the whole Iraq engagement as hopeless.”

Ford’s willingness to challenge the party’s leadership is longstanding. Back in 2002, with the Bush administration riding high and Democrats seemingly in a quandary, he even went so far, at the ripe old age of 32, as to run for House Minority Leader. He lost, badly, to a certain representative from San Francisco named Nancy Pelosi, but his challenge had the no-doubt expected result of leading political pundits to speculate as to Ford’s political future, and how a victory against Pelosi might have affected the country.

Contrasting Ford with Pelosi, “a savvy but utterly predictable liberal whom Republicans will delight in caricaturing,” Jack White wrote in Time in December 2002, “I wonder if House Democrats will someday regret that they chose Nancy Pelosi instead of brash, young Harold Ford, Jr., to lead them for the remainder of George W. Bush’s first term.”

In November of 2006, Democratic commentator James Carville caused a ruckus when he floated the notion that Ford ought to replace Howard Dean as the head of the Democratic National Committee. “Suppose Harold Ford became chairman of the DNC?” Carville speculated on Meet the Press. “How much more money do you think we could raise? Just think of the difference it could make in one day.” Instantly, the Internet was aflame with angry rebuttals, stating that Ford was not liberal enough to represent the true Democratic party.

As a member of Congress, Ford was a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of “conservative to moderate” Democrats in the House that was formed to give less liberal members of the Democratic Party a more unified voice. The DLC’s members, in contrast, often characterize themselves as “new Democrats,” taking positions somewhat to the left of the Blue Dogs on social issues, while assuming a more centrist stance on economic and trade-related issues. In fact, the National Stonewall Democrats, a grassroots network for lesbian, gay, and bisexual Democrats, voiced their opposition in January to Ford’s appointment as head of the DLC. Although Ford has voted in favor of adoptive rights for gay couples, he had alienated a large component of gay rights supporters by supporting the ban on benefits for same-sex couples as a congressman, as well as the Federal Marriage Amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Salon’s Thomas F. Schaller was among the doubters on the selection of Ford as DLC chair. “[M]uch like the Republicans’ selection of Florida Sen. Mel Martinez to head the Republican National Committee after an election in which the GOP hemorrhaged Latino support, tapping Ford is a backward-looking attempt to fight the last war,” he wrote in January. Schaller also joined others in noting fundamental obstacles in Ford’s path towards Democratic leadership: “Where Ford may find trouble connecting is with two people who are now among the nation’s most powerful Democrats, Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean. He sought the job of one, was touted as a replacement for the other, and is an ideological peer of neither.”

Ford doesn’t think his positions are overly complex—or contradictory—in the least. “Where I stand on issues is all consistent with who I am,” he says plainly. “I’m for good education. I believe we have to find ways to pay for health care for people who work day in and day out. We have to reduce our dependence on a commodity that has put us in the weirdest position, where we’re funding both sides of a war at the same time.”

Ford is also an aberration from the norm for politicians—wherever they fall on the ideological spectrum—in that he is the only member of Congress to have made People magazine’s list of its “50 Most Beautiful People,” back in 2001. An attractive, charismatic, and never-married Congressman also being something of an anomaly, his dating habits have attracted unwelcome speculation—but more on that later. >>

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Harold Ford's Next Move By Jordana Horn
Photography by Jim Graham

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