Liberal activists tend to dominate the Democratic Party's nominating process, but it's the centrists who help the party win national elections. Harold Ford Jr., the former congressman from Tennessee, is a leading voice of the latter camp. He narrowly lost a race for a Senate seat in 2006. If he had won, Ford would have been the first African-American senator from the South since Reconstruction. After his loss, he signed on as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council—the policy group that is closely associated with Bill Clinton's presidency and that has counted Sen. Hillary Clinton among its leaders. (She no longer has a formal role, the chairman says.) Ford argues that Democrats need to win swing voters and worries that combative "netroots" types could alienate independents and moderate Democrats in 2008. But the activists argue that the DLC has become irrelevant and that the days of compromise are over. NEWSWEEK's Jeffrey Bartholet spoke to Ford about the struggle for the soul of his party. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: You've warned your fellow Democrats that the '08 election will not be a cakewalk. Are you worried?
Harold Ford Jr.: Unless your opponent's name is "unopposed," you should always be concerned. And I think in this next election there are three things the Democrats have to do in order to win. First is to demonstrate that we can be trusted to defend and protect the country, that we can be trusted to care and tend to the needs of our military, and that we can be trusted to engage in a powerful and robust diplomacy, unlike we've seen in the last six or seven years. Second, we've got to demonstrate that we can be trusted with people's tax dollars, that we won't overtax people, and that we will look for every way to cut taxes and be fiscally responsible at the same time. Finally, we've got to demonstrate that we're squarely in the mainstream in the country when it comes to people's values. I caution some in our party, particularly some of the organizations and constituency groups who make up the party—particularly to the left—that this campaign will not be about George Bush; it will not be about how poorly he managed the war. It will be about how we will do it differently.
When the DLC held its annual convention in August, none of the candidates showed up. Yet most of the Democratic candidates attended the Daily Kos convention of netroots activists a few days later. Why?
You'd have to ask the candidates. I can only surmise that if you look at how Democratic and Republican primaries happen, they are really efforts to appeal to the far-right and the far-left wings of the party. But I take vindication as much as comfort in the fact that if you look at recent polling, the majority are rejecting the extremes of both parties. I'll make you one promise: next year the Democratic nominee will be at our convention.
The war is an important issue, and the DLC was pro-war.
I wouldn't call it pro-war.
It was [pro-war] in 2003.
Well, pro-war doesn't mean that we support the way this president has gone about fighting. We were supportive of removing Saddam Hussein, instilling stability in the country, reducing the threat that America faced from Al Qaeda and, equally important, the threat we thought was posed by Saddam Hussein. If we knew then what we know now … I was in the Congress; I would not have voted for the resolution. But at the same time, we're in a different place now. I caution anybody who continues to talk about the past on this issue.
The name perhaps most associated with the DLC is Bill Clinton. I'm wondering, does that help or hurt [your organization] as you approach an election in which Hillary Clinton is a candidate?
I don't see how it hurts us. A lot of the things that people long for today [were priorities during the Clinton presidency]. One of the things government can do is lower our current-accounts deficit and be more fiscally responsible. We need to address the long-term challenges of the country, including how to fund Medicare and Social Security. Bill Clinton did that. When you're a small-businessperson, you have to appreciate the way he helped lower health costs on businesspeople in this country. If you're a worker, you have to appreciate the number of jobs he helped create. We don't run from that at all. Now, if your question is, [with] Mrs. Clinton in the race, does that complicate things? Well, by no means. Most of the people running either chaired the DLC or chaired specific efforts that we launched at the DLC.
Does Hillary Clinton still have a formal role at the DLC?
She's still listed on your Web site as part of the DLC leadership team.
Right. But you can't have a formal role and still run for president with the DLC. You can be on various committees, but you can't have a formal role, no.
What does it mean that she's part of the DLC leadership team?
Meaning she's a former DLC chair. Meaning two years ago she chaired another effort in the DLC … on how to expand home ownership, how to expand college opportunity, how to expand job creation. John Edwards is on the leadership team as well. So is Joe Biden.
But her picture is right there with yours and others as a prominent leader … She's the one who is listed there. It's not John Edwards.
You ought to go back and look. I think you may see others listed as well. As you know, it is illegal for the organization to endorse anybody.
Right. That's why I was wondering, because it looks like an endorsement in a way … I'm just going to read to you here [from the DLC Web site]. It says, "DLC Leadership Team." Leaders: Harold Ford Jr., Tom Carper, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jennifer Mann, Michael Coleman. That's the list.
Because they are vice chairs of the organization.
So Hillary Clinton is a vice chair of the organization?
No. Tom Carper is.
How do you view the candidacy of Barack Obama?
Positively. He's a friend. He's been a terrific senator. His campaign has inspired people in every age group, every part of the country, every different walk of life. And I think his challenge over the next several weeks will be to demonstrate he has the experience and the vision to lead the country in every category. Personally, we have such a close friendship, as I do with Mrs. Clinton …
Have you given him any advice on how to run as an African-American in the South?
No, I've given him advice on how to run for president. But we don't get into talking on how you segregate the constituencies, and how you speak to different voters because of your racial background.
But you came very close to winning down there, so you'd have lots of good advice.
Yeah, but I don't share the advice I give to presidential candidates. But I will say this: it hasn't been based on him being black and me being black. It's really been based—to the extent he's been curious or coveted any of my advice—on what my thoughts were on various issues that he's dealt with, as has been the case with Mrs. Clinton, as has been the case with Joe Biden, as has been the case with Bill Richardson.
Looking forward, what are your political plans? Some say you're interested in the Tennessee statehouse.
I've read some of the speculation in the last few weeks. I'm a big believer that my governor, who has now been in office less than a year in his second term … we should give him a chance to govern out the remainder of his term. If there is anything voters are sick of, more than anything, it's people running for office two, three, four years out, particularly when there are big obstacles, challenges, opportunities on the table that need to be addressed. So there is no race in my immediate future. What happens three years from now is hard to say. As you know, now I'm teaching at Vanderbilt University, I'm vice chairman at Merrill Lynch, I'm chairman for the DLC, and I have a relationship with the Fox News channel and the Fox business channel, where I make some political and business commentary.
But you do hope to get back into politics, right?
Yeah, I wouldn't be surprised if I ran again a few years down the road. [Chuckles] But I'm enjoying what I'm doing. I don't wake up every morning with chills or longing or regretting. Naturally, I wanted to win, but that's behind me now.
Do you think that we will see an African-American senator from a Southern state anytime in the coming decade?
Absolutely. Bobby Jindal's win [as Republican governor] in Louisiana is a big win for a new generation of thinking in politics. [Jindal, an Indian-American, will be the first nonwhite to lead Louisiana since Reconstruction.] He's a Republican; I'm a Democrat. I served with him in Congress, and I think a lot of him. We didn't always see eye to eye, but I appreciate his approach to governing, which is to solve problems. I don't think we should look at my race as any indication of what can or cannot happen, other than to say that we got close in a seat that was formerly held by the majority leader in the Senate, who was a Republican. There are a number of things we could have done better in that race, and next time we will do it better.
If we talk again a little more than a year from now, after the presidential election is over, what do you think we'll be discussing?
I believe we will be discussing two things: one, how this next president will govern. I'm going to lay out the three or four things the president has to do, regardless of party. And if it's my party that's in the White House I may be a little tougher, just to say, "We've gone through so much. We've worked so hard. The country's placed so much trust in us. Let's not squander this." If there's one thing I've seen and heard in the 10 months I've been out of politics, there's total disgust and a complete lack of appetite for the silliness of politics. So my message for Democrats will be: make this thing work again. Finally, I'm going to make clear to the next president, whoever it may be, that if you don't get serious about means-testing, indexing, and raising the retirement age for some of the entitlement programs, you're not serious about solving the financial challenges the government has. I'm not a proponent of Bush's privatization, but I [do believe that] millionaires in this country may have to see fewer Social Security dollars and Medicare payments than those who need it most. Otherwise we're going to bankrupt the country for the next generation of Americans. It's easy to run around the country—Democrat or Republican—and say "I'm going to cut taxes, and I'm going to increase spending, and we're going to make the country great and strong." [But] you can't do that. You learn that in first grade. It's called mathematics.
You're saying to the activist wing of the Democratic Party, which refers to the DLC as irrelevant—
What I'm saying to them is, "Look at the facts." We're going to need both wings of the party to win. And my fight is not with them. To anybody who thinks we're irrelevant, the only point that I'd make is that Jon Tester, Claire McCaskill and Jim Webb certainly are not campaigning in [Montana, Missouri and Virginia, respectively] as liberal Democrats who want to take us back to the '60s. They're campaigning on a new kind of progressive platform and program that says that government should work for everybody. We're going to keep taxes as low as we possibly can. We're going to find ways to deliver health care. We're going to find ways to encourage renewable and alternative fuel development … It's hard to challenge people or argue with people who just won't pay attention to the facts. Markos [Moulitsas, founder of Daily Kos] and I have gotten beyond it. We've had our conversation. Those who want to continue the fight between the DLC and the left of the party, the only thing you're doing is strengthening John McCain, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani. Our fight is not with one another. Our challenge is to convince the majority of people in this great country that we have the ideas, the fortitude, and, frankly, the discipline to lead the country.