Americans like their politicians strong and consistent — even stubbornly so. As Sen. John Kerry (D–Mass.) found out in 2004 during his presidential campaign, a “flip-flopper” is about the worst thing you can be in an election, even if the other option is to be misguided/arrogant/goofy. But is it really such a crime for a politician to change his or her mind upon years of reflection and added experience? The case of Harold Ford, Jr. offers an interesting example.
There’s no way to start this column without first admitting that Ford is a textbook carpetbagger. That said, one cannot help but note that Ford — an alum of the University’s law school — has got some major moxie. It takes courage to do what he’s attempting, and while he may ultimately fail, his quest offers unique insights into what the modern American politician is and must be, for better and worse.
By now Ford’s unique undertaking is well known. A former conservative Democratic (“Blue Dog”) congressman from Tennessee, Ford moved to New York after his close but ultimately failed 2006 bid to become the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction. Since then, Ford has maintained a public image by appearing as a commentator on cable news networks, and he recently announced that he is considering challenging Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in the Democratic primary in New York.
That Ford wants another shot at the U.S. Senate is hardly a surprise: He is a bright, well-spoken centrist who has politics in his blood. He gave the keynote address at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, and was supposed to be the party’s young rising star. But circumstance chose President Barack Obama, leaving Ford to contemplate his future in a party that was suddenly re-situated further left than was previously thought appropriate.
It’s downright shocking, however, that Ford would attempt to remake himself in New York, as unforgiving a public stage as one could possibly imagine. While it may be genuine personal growth and experience that makes Ford sound so much different in New York than he did in Tennessee just a few years ago, that’s not something that will go unquestioned in the media capital of the world. Just weeks after Ford announced simply that he was considering a run, the Internet is abuzz with talk of his Democratic loyalties — or lack thereof.
Ford admits that he was once against gay marriage, but says that he has changed his mind after listening to the debate for the past few years. And although his critics accuse him of being a pro-lifer now flying the pro-choice flag for political expedience, Ford points out that he has an extensive pro-choice record, despite ads circulating on the web that suggest otherwise. Still, on these and other issues, it appears there is at least some degree of political maneuvering going on. My question is: Is that such a bad thing?
Right around the time of the American Revolution, the British politician Edmund Burke expounded on the merits of a representative democracy by stating that a representative must always be responsive to his constituents. He must keep in mind their unique needs and be their voice in the legislature. However, Burke famously declared that a representative owes constituents “not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
According to Burke, our elected leaders are elected not to do what we say, but rather to use their judgment about what is best for us. Should they fail, we replace them — that is democracy.
Too often in America today we elect leaders based on their views on two or three issues (abortion, gay marriage, etc.). Politicians must undergo a meaningless litmus test before being considered worthy of getting their party’s nomination. Voters almost never consider during elections why a candidate supported one thing or another — we simply discard him upon hearing of an unfavorable vote. The result is that the vital process of vetting based on judgment that Burke so favored has become largely non-existent in America.
So — even if we assume the worst about Ford for a minute — is it really that bad that one politician is trying to duck this misguided litmus test? Tennesseans value different things than New Yorkers, and it makes perfect sense that their representatives would reflect that difference in values.
Let’s face it: Harold Ford, Jr. would make a fine senator from New York. Why should it matter that he would have made just as fine a senator from Tennessee?
Imran Syed can be reached at email@example.com.