This article is part of an on-going series on black political thought on Barack Obama. In the past I've profiled the views of black Republicans, centrists and conservatives. Today's feature is on DLC Chairman Harold Ford Jr.
In 2006, Sen. Barack Obama went to Tennessee to help his fellow Democrat, Harold Ford Jr., in his effort to win a hotly contested Senate seat. Both candidates, who'd spoken at the Democratic National Convention and were rising stars in the party appeared to be riding a new wave of young black Democrats rising to visible posts within the party. But most of us know how Ford's campaign played out.
He lost his bid in a close election, quite possibly due to his race or his Christian pandering or his then "bachelor status" or all three. He now sits atop the Democratic Leadership Council, or the DLC, a "New Democrat" organization with self-described progressive-to-centrist policies. The same organization former President Bill Clinton used to launch himself onto the national stage.
It is often labeled by Liberals as the "conservative" wing of the Democratic Party.
During this presidential election season Ford, and his opinions on Obama, are hotly in demand. He's appeared on all the networks, quite regularly appearing on FOX and MSNBC to offer his views on the race and on what Obama should and should not be doing. People have had varying reactions to this. Some see Ford as a friend of Obama giving some support, some advice and some criticism. Others view Ford as a secret Clinton supporter/sour grapes back-biter, being fickle in his decision to not endorse Obama, leaving some to speculate he is against the candidate.
He's denied that, most notably to The Chicago Tribune last year where he claimed to have no "Obama envy," saying he has long-standing friendships with both Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton. And Clinton also supported Ford in his failed senate bid.
But what does Ford really think? Let's look at the tape.
In early 2007, Ford offered Obama advice on campaigning as a black American. Repeating the oft heard refrain that Obama should "forget racial politics."
"As long as he works hard, is honest ... and is not afraid to take his message anywhere in the country, he'll do fine," Ford said. "He can't try to predict what other people may think or may do. All he can do is run the campaign that he's capable of running.
"Do I think the fact that he's black will be a factor in his campaign? Probably," Ford said. "It would be a factor if two white guys were running. People talk about race regardless, so race is an issue that we deal with in America. I don't think that will be a central part of his campaign at all."
Later in May 2007, Ford told The Chicago Tribune an African American could win in the south.
The debate continues over the role that race played in Ford's failed bid to become the first African-American in the South to be elected to the U.S. Senate since the 1870s. But he maintains Democrats -- even black ones -- can carry Tennessee and other Southern states, if they meet certain expectations.
"You've got to fit in the mainstream on values issues. You've got to be fair when it comes to economic policy. And you've got to be accountable to people," he said. "Whoever wins the Democratic nomination [for president], if they fit that mold, they'll be able to compete."
In March this year, Ford wrote a column for the Knoxville News lambasting Tennessee Republicans for launching vicious attacks on Obama in an effort to smear him as sympathetic to terrorists, a "secret Muslim" and questionable in his support of Israel. Ford defended Obama, repeating that the candidate is a devout Christian and patriot.
Obama is a patriot, loves his country and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with McCain and others who seek to protect the country against terrorist attacks. Obama believes a new strategy is needed to maximize our fight against radical Islamic fundamentalists, like finishing the job against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and rooting out terrorists who are hiding out in Pakistan. After the tragedy of 9/11, no one should question the commitment of either political party when it comes to the seriousness of fighting terrorism.
But a month earlier in February Ford was criticizing Obama's foreign policy ideas at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut (while defending his own vote to authorize the war in Iraq.) He called Obama's Iraq withdrawal deadline unrealistic.
Now, he said, we have to do all we can to make that country a safer place. Ford’s experiences in Mesopotamia prove to him that presidential candidate Barack Obama is not being realistic with his promise to bring home the troops by Dec. 2009 if he is elected.
“Senator Obama himself says we have to be as careful in getting out as we were foolish and stupid in getting in,” Ford said. “I don’t think Al Qaida will let us leave by 2009.”
Then in April 2008, EbonyJet's Big Ideas blog questioned Ford's "neutrality" in the race.
Is it curious to anyone else how former Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. seems to be hedging a bit on his support for Barack Obama on his most recent television appearances?
Hard to tell what the real deal is, but it’s a marked change in tone from appearances just a couple of months ago when he seemed to lean much more in a partisan way toward the (senator) who campaigned actively for Ford in his own bid for Senate. Most curious is one phrase he keeps repeating, “If I were advising the Obama campaign..” or alternately “If I were advising my friend Barack Obama.”
Which begs the question, “Hey, aren’t you advising the Obama campaign?”
Big Ideas mentions that Ford, who is the vice chairman of Merrill Lynch, has been a big fund-raiser for Obama, but wondered why Ford isn't a bigger player in the campaign. The blog implies that perhaps Ford was rebuffed by Obama and now he's demonstrating his displeasure over this slight by being less diplomatic in his commentary.
Whatever the reason, lines like “If Senator Clinton wins with 8 to 10 percentage points, there are legitimate questions about Barack” don’t sound like the words of a content friend and supporter.
But perhaps there’s an easier explanation. If Ford is being groomed and courted as a regular MSNBC commentator in the Joe Scarborough/former House member mold, all the bending over backward to sound uninvolved might simply be part of his play to solidify his TV image as that of a fair observer who can look at all sides.
Then again, maybe Ford asked Obama to be in his upcoming wedding and Obama turned him down like he did Tavis Smiley.
Some of Big Ideas' criticisms may have come from appearances like this one Ford made on MSNBC where he said Obama had to win Indiana.
The Nashville Post's Post Politics Blog had this to say about Ford's comments:
From that perspective, and in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s win in the Pennsylvania primary, Ford just set a political bar for the black politician that surpassed him in prominence.
“You have to win Indiana,” Ford told Barack Obama (via an interview on MSNBC). And, Ford added, Obama has to “steamroll” Clinton in the other state with a primary two Tuesdays from now, North Carolina.
The Obama camp will not publicly embrace that equation. But for him to truly regain the momentum he captured during his February surge, most party pros will see Ford’s formulation as spot-on.
Commercial Appeal, a Memphis-based news site engaged in some Harold Ford Jr. as a running mate for Hillary Clinton talk, but there was nothing conclusive in the column and it's mostly navel-gazing speculation. And most recently Ford was still brandishing about the notion of a "unity ticket."
(Ford) says he wants Democrats to consider a shared Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket in November.
Ford said on MSNBC last night, "I think it's something that this party is going to have to think very seriously about in the next few weeks."
So what did any of that tell us about Ford?
It seems to me that Ford, who I've seen both defend and criticize Obama on NBC's "Meet the Press" repeatedly, isn't necessarily the demon many have made him out to be. I often make fun of Ford, but that has more to do with his status as part of that special class of monied and connected black Americans.
Some of the hullabaloo is likely because Ford hasn't declared who he's supporting and that some Obama supporters are very sensitive to criticism of their candidate, even when it's warranted. (I'm against the war, but even I think the Dec. 2009 promise his highly unrealistic. As for the "he has to win Indiana" thing, I don't know what Ford was talking about there.) But when it's come to the big smears, like what happened with the Tennessee Republicans, Ford has been out in the forefront in Obama's defense.
Is there any envy there? Why not? Who isn't envious of someone on the rise who could both make history and get to be the leader of the free world? But I don't think Ford would do anything to jeopardize an administration he likely wants to join. Once the dust settles on the convention floor and Obama is the nominee it will become obvious what all the fund-raising was for. Ford is a pure politician. He may never make it to the senate or be governor of Tennessee, but he can ride the Obama wave to bigger and better things once he's done playing pretty, pretty pundit with the networks. There is still political life left in Ford.
He's not going to be so harsh to alienate himself from what could be his political future. There are still trails left for him to blaze.