The centrist Democrat thinks that his party needs to take a page from Bill Clinton's playbook.
By JASON L. RILEY
It's the day after the political earthquake in Massachusetts, and former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford Jr. has stopped by the Journal's Manhattan offices to discuss his possible interest in New York's Democratic Senate primary. But first things first: About last night . . .
"The lesson from last night is to reset the priorities in Washington," said Mr. Ford, alluding to Republican Scott Brown's upset Tuesday in the Bay State special election for the U.S. Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy for nearly a half-century. "The next elections are in November, so the president and the Democrats have a few months to get this right. But we will forfeit our majorities in Congress in November if the American people don't feel more economically secure six months from now than they do today. And Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts is just the latest indicator."
The former congressman moved to New York after narrowly losing a bid for a U.S. senate seat in Tennessee four years ago. Since leaving the House, he's served as head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, been a commentator on Fox News Channel and MSNBC, and taken a job with Merrill Lynch.
Of late, he's been considering a Democratic primary challenge against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Ms. Gillibrand was tapped by Gov. David Paterson last year to fill a vacancy left by Hillary Clinton after Mrs. Clinton became President Obama's secretary of state.
Mr. Ford believes health-care reform—a key factor in Mr. Brown's upset in the Bay State—is important. But he is quick to add that it has distracted Democrats from more urgent priorities. "I think the attention and energy that health care has consumed has been so exhausting that it's caused the administration and, Democrats in Washington in particular, to lose sight of the need for a bold economic-growth and job-creation plan."
Still, he hopes that the Democrats find a way to pass the bill with bipartisan support. "My recommendation would be to take into account what happened last night." Besides listening to congressmen and senators who "continue to face pressure at home about a health bill," he believes those crafting the plan should focus on three things: preventing denials of coverage for pre-existing conditions, implementing tort reform, and expanding coverage for all children.
Mr. Ford applauds much of what President Obama has accomplished in his first year. "I think it's safe to say we avoided a depression because of many of the policies that the administration put forward," he says. But that has "not been enough in the eyes of middle-class voters across the country," he says, citing the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. "A majority [54%] of the country now believes that the country is on the wrong track, and those numbers generally correlate with economic security."
To address the anxiety Americans are feeling, Mr. Ford thinks that the White House needs to focus squarely on the economy. "First we need to cut taxes for businesses in the country, small and large," he says. "We ought to provide a six-month exemption from the payroll tax for all firms less than five years old. We ought to extend the current capital gains and dividend tax rates through 2012. We ought to make permanent all the research and development tax credits for businesses making those investments. And we ought to lower the corporate tax rate from 35% to 25%."
It's no wonder many consider Mr. Ford too conservative to win a U.S. Senate seat in New York. The scion of a prominent Memphis political family, he was first elected to Congress in 1996 at 26-years-old—just months after graduating from law school at the University of Michigan. He entered politics as a New Democrat, in the mold of Bill Clinton circa 1992. Mr. Ford's part of a younger generation of black political leaders—Newark, N.J, Mayor Cory Booker is another—who has shown a willingness to break racial ranks on certain issues. Mr. Ford's been a strong proponent of school choice, even supporting the successful Washington, D.C., voucher program for low-income families that President Obama is shuttering in deference to teachers unions.
His voting record as a five-term congressman was more moderate—he prefers the term "independent"—than those of his fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus. While in office, Mr. Ford supported normal trade relations with China, prayer in schools, a repeal of the death tax, and a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning. In 2002 he even challenged Nancy Pelosi for minority leader because he believed his party was moving too far to the left.
Asked what prompted his interest in the Senate contest, Mr. Ford says that since moving here he's noticed "a concern on the part of New Yorkers that Washington has lost its way and that Senator Gillibrand has not been an effective voice, an independent voice, a reliable voice on behalf of New Yorkers." So far, Ms. Gillibrand is facing an uncontested primary, and a Marist poll released last week showed her beating Mr. Ford by 19 points. But the same poll also showed that the senator has a troubling 24% approval rating among voters; another 25% of voters have no opinion of her at all.
Anticipating criticism that a primary would be divisive and cost money better spent on the general election, Mr. Ford argues that it's more important for voters to have the opportunity to choose the Democratic nominee. "In this race, the reality is that Senator Gillibrand was appointed by a governor who was not elected," he said, referring to the fact that Mr. Paterson became governor when his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, resigned in the wake of a prostitution scandal. "She is not the incumbent. New Yorkers have never had a chance to vote for her."
Mr. Ford has modified some of his past positions on social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, to accommodate the more liberal sensibilities of New York voters. If Ms. Gillibrand wants to dwell on this, however, she'll have to explain her own sudden shift to the left on gun control and immigration after she joined the upper chamber. Mr. Ford also knows that he will take some lumps for being a carpetbagger, but he isn't any less knowledgeable about the state than Bobby Kennedy or Mrs. Clinton were when they moved to New York to run for senate.
Mr. Ford's main criticism of Ms. Gillibrand—echoed by others—is that she's little more than an acolyte of Democrat Chuck Schumer, the state's senior senator. He says New Yorkers deserve someone who will think for himself: "I've been an independent voice for my entire time in politics. For 10 years in Congress, I represented largely the city of Memphis. I wasn't elected to go to Washington to vote 100% with Democrats. I was elected to represent my constituents and put them first."
This state, says Mr. Ford, has a history of choosing free-thinking representatives. "This seat has had the likes of Robert Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Hillary Clinton. When Bobby Kennedy came to New York—and I don't compare myself to Kennedy, but there are some parallels—he was criticized by liberals in New York who thought he wasn't liberal enough, who didn't think his carpetbagging would be embraced by New York City and by the state.
"Yet he went on to be one of the great independent voices in the U.S. Senate, legislating in a way that not only benefited New York but distinguished him around the country. So while I have great respect for Senator Schumer, New Yorkers have come to expect their senators to be independent, strong elected officials who will put New York first. And I think I would do a better job of that than Senator Gillibrand."
As an example of Ms. Gillibrand putting party fealty ahead of her constituents, Mr. Ford cites her support for the current Senate health-care bill that would cost the state some $1 billion in federal reimbursements. "The reason I'm against the Senate bill is that I'm opposed to the extra fees and burdens it places on New York state and New York City at a time when the state is running a $7.5 billion-plus deficit."
The White House has already indicated that it is supporting Ms. Gillibrand, and Mr. Schumer is doing all he can to ensure that she doesn't face a primary opponent. But given that New York Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than three million, a Democratic primary is probably the best place to have a debate about job growth and the state's business climate. New Yorkers deserve a real choice, even if Mr. Schumer wants the only Democratic option to be a distaff version of himself.
Mr. Ford says that as senator he would act to protect New York's crucial financial industry, which means opposing bills like the one passed by the House of Representatives last month that would treat the "carried interest" income of private-equity and hedge-fund managers as regular salary rather than capital gains that are taxed a lower rate. "I think we should have a compromise in the tax rate, somewhere in between. I think we can find a middle ground."
He's also skeptical of the president's recently proposed "financial crisis responsibility fee," to be levied on large banks to cover expected losses in the Troubled Asset Relief Program. "Conceptually, the president is right," says Mr. Ford. "He's trying to curb the excessive risk taking that occurred without discouraging all risk taking and entrepreneurship. And yes, taxpayers deserve to recoup some of these losses. But it's hard to support what he's laid out. The details are scant and it doesn't add up. I would support no bill that does harm to New York's financial industry."
Asked if pending legislation that imposes compulsory union arbitration on employers would help lower the unemployment rate, Mr. Ford says it won't. "And card check"—as the bill is known—"should not be the focus right now. If that's at the top of the agenda, we're not going to move forward on a job-creation agenda. I do support the unions in this country. And I support the right to organize. But I don't believe that this is the right time to advance card-check legislation."
He does think we are overdue for comprehensive energy reform, however, and he wants a bill to pass soon. "I'm not sure that a carbon tax is the right answer at this moment. But we kid ourselves if we think America can be the dominant economic player on the global stage if we don't find ways to produce new forms of energy, not only for our consumption but to be exported around the world.
"When the energy debate took place in Congress, there were some Republicans who argued that if a bill passed, you would pass on a $300 tax bill to every American family. But I think that most people in the country would be willing to pay $300 more per year if it meant fewer wars related to our appetite for oil, more jobs and a cleaner environment. So a carbon tax right now on top of all the economic stress that we're facing is not the right thing to do. But I think the energy agenda of the president and Democrats is much broader than that."
Going forward, Mr. Ford wants the president and his party to recall the lessons of the past—specifically those of the Clinton years. "Clinton was my kind of Democrat, and is what I came to know a Democrat should stand for," he says. "When Bill Clinton took office, he inherited a record-size debt, yet balanced the budget in 1998 . . . We created 22 million new jobs. The country handed a surplus to his successor. This is the lesson for our current president. You can find a way to grow the economy and be fiscally disciplined. It can be done."
Mr. Riley is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.
Source: The Wall Street Journal