The current Tennessee Senate campaign presents journalists with a conundrum. While Congressman Harold Ford Jr. is the Democratic nominee for the seat being vacated by Bill Frist, his day job requires that he continue serving the best interests of the citizens of the Ninth Tennessee District in the House of Representatives. As a result, we cannot ignore his performance in that capacity, even while we devote much more ink to coverage of his campaign for higher office.
Last week Congressman Ford cast votes in the House of Representatives on two controversial national-security bills. The first involved the president's detainee legislation. It eliminates the right of habeas corpus for those brought before military tribunals. And it allows the president to imprison indefinitely anyone and everyone he thinks is an "unlawful combatant."
Ford's good friend, Senator Barack Obama, described himself as "ashamed" by the contents of this Military Commissions Act, pushed comfortably through both houses of the Republican-controlled Congress last Wednesday. Evidently, Congressman Ford has a higher shame threshold; he was one of just 34 House Democrats voting to restore to President Bush the sweeping executive powers that had been stripped from him by Supreme Court rulings earlier this year.
Later in the week, the House considered passage of the bizarrely titled Electronic Surveillance Modernization Act, a heinous piece of legislation also designed to subvert recent Supreme Court decisions, in this case those requiring the president to get special-court approval before wiretapping American civilians. This time, only 18 out of 201 Democrats broke ranks with the party leadership. But Harold Ford Jr. again was among the dissidents.
Congressman Ford's votes on these two measures should be a matter of concern for all his Ninth District constituents. We would suggest that any poll of public opinion in this heavily Democratic district would record overwhelming opposition to these bald extensions of presidential power by the Bush administration. So why did Mr. Ford vote the way he did?
Of course, one would had to have spent the last six months living on Mars to ask that question without first planting one's tongue firmly in cheek. In the last month of a bitter Senate campaign, our congressman obviously is appealing to a broader audience than the one he currently represents, an audience more sympathetic, perhaps, to the Bush administration's "war on terror" prescriptions.
But until January, Harold Ford Jr. still represents his Ninth District constituents, citizens who deserve the courtesy of an explanation of his actions on the House floor. We are troubled by the fact that nowhere on his two political Web sites (his official House site and his Senate campaign site) does the congressman provide such an explanation. Even more troubling is the fact that his Web sites make no reference whatsoever to the fact that these events actually happened and that he returned to Washington last week to vote with the Bush administration, not against it, on both of these national-security measures.
We would welcome the congressman's explanation of these two votes and would be happy to provide space in this newspaper for him to do so. No doubt he has much bigger fish to fry these days and may find explaining these votes to the people whose own votes sent him to Congress for five consecutive terms something of a distraction. Nevertheless, inquiring minds want to know.