Thursday, November 21, 2002

Two for the Future

Tennesseans Ford and Frist are destined to shine bright in the national firmament.

Posted By on Thu, Nov 21, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Almost like the meteor shower that interested parties had to be up and ready for one cold morning this week, the star of Harold Ford Jr. flared briefly across the nation's political consciousness last week.

In the space of a few days, the 9th District congressman from Memphis announced his candidacy to lead the slightly truncated body of Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, launched a frenzied lobbying campaign (complete with hopeful spin on the numbers), and suffered an unexpectedly lopsided loss of 177-29 to the favorite and ultimate winner, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California.

One factor which may have led to the enormity of Pelosi's margin was that, while Ford himself was a fresh presence, his posture as a "black centrist," supportive of tax cuts and the Iraqi war resolution, might have come across as old wine in new bottles. His House colleagues plainly wanted a show of more contrast with the Bush administration.

It would be tempting to invoke the overused Warholian cliché and speak of Ford's 15 minutes, except for the fact that the congressman, a telegenic, articulate, and versatile commentator on politics at large, had logged mucho clock time already as a guest on virtually all the prime-time network talk shows. Indeed, Ford is so ubiquitous in such venues that his press secretary, Anthony Coley, would be well advised to alter the format of the "Ford TV Alert" notices he regularly sends out to the media.

Instead of sending head-ups on this or that program which will be featuring a drop-in by Ford (discoursing on everything from atom bombs to xenophobia), Coley might more efficiently advise reporters that his man will not be appearing at 3:30 a.m. next Sunday on the Weather Channel.

The ambitious 32-year-old congressman was described recently by Chattanooga state senator Ward Crutchfield this way: "He's a star. This guy's got a personality out of this world." There's nothing particularly exceptional about that observation, except for the source -- a crusty, seasoned East Tennessee pol who is as shrewd an exponent of realpolitik as can be found anywhere in the state.

If Ward Crutchfield thinks a bill can pass, believe it: It can, and probably will, pass. If he thinks a fellow Democrat -- even an African American from Memphis named Ford -- can pass muster as a statewide candidate, then you can make book on it. Most likely for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Bill Frist and presumably up for grabs in 2006.

Frist -- who, as director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, oversaw his party's recapture of the Senate early this month -- is another shooting star from Tennessee; like Ford, he is held back only by the clogged aisles, fickle calendar, and blocked passages that govern political ascendancy. His Senate seat is expected to be open in 2006 either as a fulfillment of his two-term pledge or, more likely, because he has passed on to greater glory.

An intimate of President Bush's, Frist is widely viewed as a potential successor to Vice President Dick Cheney and as a likely presidential candidate in 2008. In the meantime, he is regarded as a possible secretary of homeland security when that cabinet post is created. Complicating (or expediting) Frist's career itinerary was the recent victory of Democrat Phil Bredesen as governor of Tennessee. Should Frist depart his Senate post for any reason after Bredesen's swearing-in next January, Bredesen would get to pick a successor -- almost surely a partymate.

That fact would surely give pause to Bush, since,even after the smashing GOP election triumphs of two weeks ago, the next Senate will be only narrowly in Republican hands. The president could ill afford to lose a Republican senator; so any major appointment for Frist -- or commitment for one -- would have to occur on GOP governor Don Sundquist's fast-dwindling watch.

Tennessee's two political zephyrs were linked for some months back in 1999 and 2000 when Ford, under pressure from both state and national party figures, contemplated a race for Frist's seat.The congressman's intentions became largely pro forma after Memphis mayor Willie Herenton's smashing victory over city councilman Joe Ford -- and the extended Ford family -- in the city election of October 1999.

The fact that Ford kept up appearances for as long as he did back then, continuing to fire criticism at Frist over the issue of dormant patients'-rights legislation, has led some skeptics to conclude that he is interested more in making headlines than in making headway. But there was no doubting he was in earnest earlier this year when Republican Fred Thompson decided not to seek reelection; Ford badly wanted to run and was prevented from doing so only when party elders backed his equally resolute House colleague from Nashville, Bob Clement.

There is little doubt that Ford would run for an open Senate seat in 2006 and little chance that any other name Democrat would get in his way. A likely opponent might be outgoing 7th District congressman Ed Bryant, who lost a bitter primary to Alexander this year, or 6th District congressman Zach Wamp of Chattanooga.

Only time will tell whether the embarrassment of his lopsided loss to Pelosi has damaged Ford's prospects. Meanwhile, watch your cable channels to see whether, and to what extent, Harold Ford Jr.'s 15-minutes-plus has been extended by the gods of the communications industry.

Ford will be 38 in 2008, presumably an "open" presidential year. Frist is positioning himself to run that year. It's a long shot, but not an impossibility, that both upwardly mobile Tennesseans will find themselves on a national ticket. And their showdown, deferred two years ago, could take place after all.

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