VIEWPOINT: Person to Person 

How Tennessee’s Senate race fell out of the national mold.

During his brief stopover in Memphis last week, in the course of a “Thank You” tour of Tennessee, U.S. senator-elect Bob Corker said everything there was to say about his victory as a Republican in a Democratic tidal-wave year over Harold Ford Jr.

He had been fortunate, he said, in that the campaign between himself and Ford had not turned into “a national referendum, which would not have been good for us” but became “a choice between two people.”

Bingo!

One way of viewing that statement, which cuts to the core of the case, is to credit, as other analysts have done and as Corker himself seems to have meant, the change of pace imposed upon his campaign by veteran pol Tom Ingram.

When Ingram took over management of Corker’s sagging effort with scarcely more than a month to go, he transformed it from a dreary and unconvincing assault on Ford as a “liberal” into one that stressed the personal differences between the two candidates.

Hence the compelling series of image-based commercials, produced by both the Corker campaign itself and the Republican National Committee, including the notorious “Call Me” ad, which is surely destined for a niche in primers about politics — even if the wrong niche, since its point was not who or what race the bimbo was but the fact that, as she averred, “I met Harold at the Playboy party!”

Corker meanwhile was shown as a down-home family man — using the most convincing fodder imaginable: a real-life wife and two cute-as-a-button daughters.
In his own ads, Ford cut a dazzling swathe, delivering homilies about faith or about a few politically uninflected bare-bones issues — gas prices, health care, patriotism, financial solvency. Having vowed from the stump that he wouldn’t run up to Washington yelling “Democrat, Democrat, Democrat,” he distanced himself as much as possible from party affiliation or anything concrete in the way of ideology.

Good as Ford’s performance was in his ads, they all emphasized the very basis of comparison — personality and personality alone — that Ingram was hoping voters would focus on.

And underneath the smooth surface of Ford’s TV pitches was a meta-text that reinforced the unrelentingly negative portrait of him being painted by the GOP. That throwaway line, for example, in the (perhaps) over-praised Ford commercial filmed in a church sanctuary. He had come by attention to religion “the old-fashioned way,” Ford said. “I was forced to.”

Points for candor, maybe — but you didn’t have to know who Freud was to get the sense of repression from it — all the more reason, finally, to trust the GOP’s contrary image of bachelor Ford as a libertine.

And those nods to heaven and finger-pointings upwards, all those public homages to “the big God I serve” — they all savored of sanctimony, however sincere they might have been.

And, however voters might have felt about a candidate’s open acknowledgment of his political heritage, they were surely not keen — not in a time of Ralph Reed pimping for Jack Abramoff and Indian casinos, of Foleygate, and the unfortunate Reverend Haggard — on someone running up to Washington yelling “Pharisee, Pharisee, Pharisee!”

Arresting and original as was Ford’s daring attempt at recovering the faith-based constituency from Republican control, it meant little without a balancing and clear-minded political correlate. It was like a battery possessing only one node — no way for it to hold or generate a charge.

Bob Corker was right: In a national sweep-year for the Democrats, he was able to hold on against his charming, articulate opponent because it was the latter as much as he himself who had steered away from the referendum on political direction that was so long overdue.

And in the person-to-person comparison that was the only thing left, businessman/mayor Corker somehow came off more frontal and
direct to the voters of Tennessee than the attractive young politician with the teasing but ambiguous profile.
Senior editor Jackson Baker is the Flyer’s political columnist.

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