One of this fall's biggest controversies over mixing politics and religion came courtesy of Tennessee Democratic Rep. Harold Ford. No, he wasn't the one yelling about the inappropriate expropriation of faith for political ends, as you would expect of most Democrats. He's the alleged offender. This fact alone goes a long way toward explaining why Ford could win a race for a Republican-held Senate seat in Tennessee and help tip control of the body to the Democrats.
Ford's ad had him walking between pews in Mount Moriah East Baptist Church, where he was baptized as a child. It prompted howls from ACLU-types but showed that Ford is comfortable talking about his faith. He understands that Democrats can't hope to win in places like Tennessee unless they demonstrate active sympathy with the deepest-held beliefs of voters.
A five-term, African-American congressman from Memphis, Ford has come close in his brilliant campaign to cracking the electoral code for Democrats running practically anywhere that's not dominated by a major urban center. It comes down to "don't be a liberal," or at least "don't be a liberal in easily exploitable ways."
Ford has sidestepped the symbolic hot-button issues. He is, for instance, against partial-birth abortion and for a ban on flag-burning. The calculation here is plain. Why should Democrats expend an ounce of credibility defending a practice that strikes most people as infanticide and is a tiny proportion of all abortions? And why seem to defend flag-burning, a practice that is highly offensive and happens only rarely anyway? (Liberal absolutists will have answers to these questions, but they never will be elected statewide in Tennessee.)
On national security, Ford voted for the Iraq War and tilted toward President Bush in his dispute with Sen. John McCain on how to interrogate terrorists. Again, even if they object to tough interrogations of a few top-level al-Qaida killers, why would Democrats make an issue of it? On the economy, Ford has supported a slew of tax cuts. Taken altogether, he has systematically eliminated his party's vulnerabilities on culture, national security and the economy, in a performance worthy of Bill Clinton in his centrist, vote-winning prime.
If John Kerry had been half as deft, he would be president now. The deftness is key. Ford has charisma (he is one of People magazine's most beautiful people) and knows what he is doing. When a questioner at a recent debate rattled off the issues on which Ford agrees with Bush and asked what he dissents from him on, Ford said he thinks Bush hasn't done enough to secure the ports or the borders, cannily positioning himself to the president's right.
When Republican candidate Bob Corker, after winning his primary, immediately ran ads attacking Ford as a liberal, they had no effect. Ford can say labeling him a "liberal" is mere name-calling (as liberals often do when it suits their purposes), and it rings true. Republicans complain that Ford's turn right is calculated. He had a 100 percent rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action as recently as 1999, but as his ambitions turned to a statewide race, it dipped down into the 70s and 80s. Well, if Paris was worth a Mass, a Senate seat is worth some shrewd insincerity.
Many Democrats will never go as far as Ford toward the center. He has even allowed it to become a matter of ambiguity whether he's pro-choice. But a presidential candidate had best heed the lesson of his campaign. Without picking off red states like Tennessee, Democrats will never win the White House.
Ford could still lose. Tennessee isn't Mississippi, but it's solidly Republican, and Ford's race will probably count against him in a region that hasn't elected a black senator since Reconstruction. But if he wins, Senate Democrats will get a voice of reason besides (a bruised) Joe Lieberman, another rising African-American star along with Barack Obama and, quite possibly, the majority. Not a bad payoff for some strategic repositioning.