As Democrats look at poll figures that show Massachusetts senator John Kerry competitive with President Bush, they have strikingly divergent ideas about how to exploit the fact.
That became crystal clear two weekends ago when 9th District congressman Harold Ford Jr., a national co-chair of the Kerry campaign, addressed members of the Germantown Democratic Club. As always on the stump, Ford was precise, energized, and encyclopedic. As usual, he was persuasive. And, as the animated response he got unmistakenly indicated, he was appreciated.
But some of his ideas encountered resistance with the party faithful, and therein lies evidence of a continuing difference of opinion among Democrats, post-primaries, as to how to deal with some fundamental issues.
Ford began his remarks with assurances that nominee-to-be Kerry has not written off the South as an electoral battleground. And he followed that up with criticism of Republican attempts to stereotype Kerry's home state as too liberal. Massachusetts, Ford noted, was the first American colony to organize a protest against high taxes, the first state to call for the abolition of slavery, and the home of three presidents -- "with a fourth one coming this November."
As for the current red-flag issue of gay marriage, Ford downplayed the controversy and pointed out that "each of the justices" who okayed the process in Massachusetts recently had been appointees of a Republican governor.
So far, so good. The audience was with the congressman, and it continued to be on such other points as what Ford said was the administration's under-funding of Homeland Security and education, its failures on the unemployment front, and the bad form of the "flag-draped coffins" in the Bush campaign's current TV ads.
The congressman was on shakier ground with several other assertions, however. Among them:
• That the presidential election of 2000 should not be regarded as having been "stolen" by chicanery in Florida, as many Democrats continue to assert. "They didn't steal it. They beat us. Accept it. If you want to be angry about it, let's go beat 'em this time." Ford urged adherents of former Democratic candidates, especially those loyal to ex-Vermont governor Howard Dean and former NATO commander Wesley Clark, both of whom he praised, to "put aside" their disappointments and make common cause with Kerry.
• That Democrats should avoid direct accusations about Bush's veracity. "I think we as a party have to be careful not to call him a liar." Ford said he doubted that Bush had purposely misled the country with assertions prior to last year's attack on Iraq that dictator Saddam Hussein possessed WMD. "I don't think presidents do that. If it turns out that he did, the Constitution commands the act we must take to redress that. I don't think we're there."
Ford said that continued speculation that Bush had prevaricated on the presence of WMD in Iraq could be counterproductive. "I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on this issue," Ford said. "Politically, we won't win that point. Most Americans root for a president. I don't wake up wanting to see the guy fail. I'm not interested in seeing him fail."
On the presumption that Saddam had been a military menace, Ford said, "Bill Clinton said the same thing. I'm not here to defend George Bush. I want to win. But Bill Clinton had the same policy -- to disarm Iraq and change the regime. George Bush just took it to another level."
Insisting that "we're safer with Saddam Hussein behind bars," Ford said, "John Kerry's position is clear. He voted like all of us did or like many of us did" -- to give the president authority for military action. In defense of his own vote for the 2002 resolution approving potential military action in Iraq, Ford said, "If the president says we're in danger, I'm going to vote for it."
Ford argued that Democrats might better challenge Bush on the question of his retaining CIA chief George Tenet. The congressman suggested a streamlining and massive re-tooling of the nation's intelligence network under a single head, so that "if FBI agents saw something at Memphis airport or Wilson [a corporate air facility]," it could reach the president's attention.
• That taxes against corporations might be abolished. "They only account for $300 billion in taxes," the congressman said. If exempted, "they'd all come back and hire more people. I'd much rather they come back there than go overseas. We need to create incentives for them to come back home."
Although such conspicuously middle-of-the-road assertions were only a modest part of the congressman's speech, they embroiled him in a good deal of debate. One skeptic, club member Roger Easson, would say later, "He cuts Bush slack where he doesn't deserve any slack. We have to draw the line." And others had similar sentiments.
On the other hand, Dr. Ted Strom, a well-known backer of Dean's, grudgingly concurred with what he perceived as Ford's realpolitik: "I don't want to spend the next four years being right on the facts and having George W. Bush as president." Ford, who plans to run for the U.S. Senate in 2006 and is also discussed as possible cabinet material in a Kerry administration, also advanced an innovation or two. Notable was his concept of "stakeholder" accounts, whereby newborn American citizens would receive a $1,000 "stake" at birth and receive various add-ons later -- upon reaching the sixth-grade level and upon graduation, for example.
"I think she wants to be mayor," said city councilman Brent Taylor Monday night after he'd addressed the Southeast Shelby Republicans at Fox Ridge Pizza in Fox Meadows.
The "she" was Taylor's council colleague Carol Chumney, whom he had just described to the club members as "a uniter, not a divider," in the same way, ironically meant, that Mayor Willie Herenton had been a "uniter" after his famously inflammatory New Year's Day speech.
Taylor's point was that Chumney, who has been critical lately of both her council mates and the council staff, had supplanted the mayor as an opponent capable of creating unanimity among the rest of the council.
"What she said is no different from what the mayor said. It's just different words, but it's the same message," Taylor said. "She likes to talk about her 13 years of experience in the legislature. I'm surprised at her freshman naivete. Unless you have relationships and can build relationships, you can't get anything accomplished. The only way you can get seven votes is to have good relationships, and to say 'Get on board or get out of the way' is not the way."
Something of a phrase-maker, Taylor fielded a question about Memphis as a prospective host for the MTV awards by saying, "I thought that was 'Mostly Taylor Voters.' He added, "I heard Janet Jackson's other breast was demanding equal time."