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Tennessee Republican luminaries grumbled that they couldn’t get enough tickets to Memphis’s Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, last Friday’s stop on George Bush’s Social Security privatization tour. Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, a GOP U.S. Senate hopeful whose district includes parts of suburban Memphis, failed to appear at her president’s show, claiming she missed her flight out of Washington. However, it is widely assumed Blackburn didn’t want to be hectored by Bush to get off the fence on private Social Security accounts.

Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., who may face Blackburn in the race for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s seat in 2006, had no problem with tickets – the White House personally invited the 34-year-old lawmaker and gave him 100 of the prized pieces of paper. From the stage, Bush warmly welcomed Ford, seated in the third row of the auditorium.

Why the star treatment for a Democrat with his eyes on the U.S. Senate? It’s simple: Bush and the anti-Social Security network consider Harold Ford to be a friend. Despite the public’s leeriness of privatization, Bush clearly believes that his scheme – and Ford’s vote – are still in play. Until very recently, Ford gave them no reason to think otherwise. Bush is at least as good a political dancer as Ford – and he’s not convinced the waltz with Ford is over. Neither are we.

Noting that Ford “is viewed as a potential ally by conservative backers of private accounts,” the Los Angeles Times asked the congressman about the Bush rally theme: A Conversation on Strengthening Social Security. "That wasn't a conversation. It was more of an echo," said Ford. The Associated Press got an earful of Ford’s concerns about the multi-trillion dollar cost of private accounts and the risk that people would lose their retirement money to the market. "If things go bad, people turn to the government for help," he said – appearing to endorse Franklin Roosevelt’s concept of Social Security as insurance against the vicissitudes of the stock market.

What a difference a few public opinion polls make – plus lots of pressure from Democratic leadership. Only a year ago, Ford told the Nashville Scenethere are some things some Democrats believe that I don't. I don't think government is an insurance program" – a hideous but principled position that is philosophically consistent with proponents of privatization. At a gathering of privatizers in March of last year, Ford embraced Karl Rove’s “ownership society” mantra, and repeatedly made clear that he favored “personal accounts” in principle. Asked directly if he would support legislation “like [South Carolina Republican] Senator Lindsey Graham’s, with personal accounts in Social Security,” Ford replied: “Yes, I would, provided we could pay for the transition costs without running up bigger deficits.”

Ford has long been a regular on the privatizers’ snake oil circuit. Although he balks at the price tag for private accounts, Ford has consistently encouraged his rightwing colleagues to believe that he is, at heart, one of them. "Designing a Social Security reform plan is the first step, and Rep. [Jim] DeMint [R-SC] has designed a good one,” said Ford in a September 16, 2003 press release. “The next step is figuring out how to pay for it. That's the harder part – the part that will demand political courage from both Democrats and Republicans, this Congress and this President.”

Ford makes common cause with greedy racists and calls that courage. His game is to position himself as closely to the Republicans as possible, so that when the right moment arrives he can effect the “compromise” that causes Democratic ranks to fracture. Harold Ford is a betrayal waiting to happen.

There could have been no doubt, last year, that Ford was seeking a way to support a privatization bill. “Hopefully,” he said, “we can consider some new financing approaches – such as raising the taxable maximum from $90,000 to $140,000 – when we put personal accounts on the table.” (Italics ours.)

Since at least mid-2003 Ford has done everything possible to demonstrate that he shares both the premises and principles of Social Security’s opponents: that the program is in deep trouble (“over the long-term, the costliest option is maintaining the existing system“) and that government should not provide a universal mechanism to ensure against old age and survivors poverty (“I don't think government is an insurance program").

The Social Security demolition team loves him. “Harold Ford brings unique credibility [read: Blackness] to the movement to modernize and restructure the current Social Security system,” said Derrick Max, Executive Director of the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, a front for the National Association of Manufacturers, in September, 2003. “His frank acknowledgment that ‘tough choices about financing Social Security are in front of us’ is a deep breath of fresh air in a debate that has been mired in partisanship and myopia.”

Remember Derrick Max’s term, “modernize” – a Right code word for hitching Social Security to the stock market. The same language also leaped from Harold Ford’s mouth, even as he attempted very late in the game to retreat from Bush-style privatization.

The retreat

established Ford’s support for private accounts in principle in our January 6, 2005 Cover Story, “Black Point Man for the Right: Rep. Harold Ford, Jr.” Just hours after the issue appeared, Ford chief of staff Mark Schuermann requested that we publish a correction based on the congressman’s December 30, 2004 statement:

"I do not support changing the Social Security system as has been proposed by President Bush, nor do I support Social Security proposals advanced by the CATO Institute. In fact, both of these proposals have the potential to harm current beneficiaries by paying for the transition costs by issuing debt. Piling on more red ink to the existing federal budget deficit and the national debt will also do both long and short term harm to our economy . I do believe that the system needs to be modernized but I do not support changing the Social Security system as President Bush has proposed."

Of course, Bush had not then (and still has not) presented his Social Security plan – he’s waiting to see what he can get away with. And note that Ford uses the marketizers’ code phrase, “the system needs to be modernized” – a much bigger grab bag than simple adjustments to make Social Security viable for a longer period.

Ford did put some distance between himself and Bush and CATO, but he had not disavowed private accounts, only the borrowing of trillions to pay for them – a position he shares with lots of Republican lawmakers. George Bush and Harold Ford are both looking for the right deal.

responded to Ford’s request for a correction:

There is nothing to correct. Rep. Ford has embraced privatization "in principle," as we wrote. We are sure that Cong. Ford will further choreograph his dance with the Right regarding costs and such, but he has effectively and deliberately crossed a very bright line. He has a very long way to go to come back to the civilized side of the aisle. Please tell us when he plans to get there.”

Ford’s machinations are transparent to everyone, although the etiquette of Black congressional politics prevents his African American colleagues from publicly calling him on it. Rightwing columnist Robert Novak cannot be believed on most subjects, but when it comes to what’s happening in conservative circles, he’s an insider. “Prominent House Republicans have been soliciting support for the Bush Social Security proposal from several black members of Congress, who have been pressured by Democratic leaders to stand firm,” Novak wrote on February 27. “Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee last year appeared ready to support personal accounts as part of Social Security revision but backed away then under heavy pressure.”

An Associated Press article sent to us by Ford’s office to buttress his case for a “correction” of the commentary, said: “Supporters of Bush's idea had hoped Ford would join their side on Social Security as he explores a Senate run for 2006.” In fact, Ford gave them every reason to hope. And the dance ain’t over, yet.

As late as March 9, USA Today still considered Harold Ford to be a “tantalizing target” who “might break with fellow Democrats” on Social Security. Ford made it plain that he is still searching high and low for a way to say “yes” to Bush. “My party has to be very careful not to be perceived as the 'no' party on this," he told USA Today.

Bush heard Ford’s signal loud and clear, and sent the invitation and 100 tickets for the Memphis rally.

The recantation

Ford’s current spin is, essentially, that he spent all that time in a mutual courtship with Social Security privatizers in order to advance his own ASPIRE Act, which would start every newborn child off in life with a $500 dollar investment account. After George Bush finished his sales pitch in Memphis, last week, Ford was eager to put the president’s remarks – and his own recent history – in the best possible light. "The reason I'm excited about him talking about these accounts," Ford told the New York Times, "is that I believe we need to do more to help people save and create wealth, especially for low-income and moderate-income Americans." However, “anything we do should be outside of Social Security," he added.

There is no question that the shallowness of Black wealth – about one-tenth of median white household wealth, a direct result of slavery, Jim Crow and current discrimination – must be placed among the most urgent African American priorities. The centuries-long white head-start tends to negate every gain made by Blacks, as whites sprint ahead on the strength of inherited wealth and social connections, with the still-strong winds of skin privilege at their backs adding further advantage. No legitimate Black political activist argues otherwise.

At a March 1 Capitol Hill briefing titled “Changing Social Security: The Impact on African Americans,” Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel welcomed the creation of private accounts, as long as they are not substitutes for real pensions and Social Security benefits. “If they were to have a thrift like the Congress has, where we have our pension benefits, and a separate account for privatization, count me in,” said Rangel.

“I am in favor of an add-on account, an add-on account that is outside of Social Security that would enhance wealth opportunity, especially for low income people,” said Congressional Black Caucus Foundation vice president Dr. Maya Rockeymoore. “Wealth creation is important to African Americans. But you don’t do it by carving away from Social Security. You do it by adding on outside of Social Security.” Rockeymoore is author of the CBC Foundation’s report, “The Social Security Privatization Crisis.

Harold Ford has done his best to foster the privatization crisis. Now repentant – but only for so long as Bush’s Social Security prospects look dim – Ford claims to be the Green Knight, the congressional standard-bearer for Black wealth creation.

Ford, however, chose to present his “Kids Account” bill while simultaneously letting everyone in both Houses of Congress and the national media know that he was up for grabs on Social Security privatization. He threw together a Congressional Ownership and Savings Caucus, comprised of Republicans (Reps. Phil English, PA, Tom Petri, WI, Sen. Rick Santorum, PA), and Blue Dog and Democratic Leadership Council Democrats (Rep. Jim Cooper, Sen. Kent Conrad, ND). Rather than an honest forum, it seemed the perfect venue for cooking up market raids on Social Security.

At a recent town hall meeting held by Ownership Caucus member Santorum, Young Republicans chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Social Security's got to go."

As long as Ford keeps and cultivates such company, everything he does is suspect, no matter the merits of the legislation he hawks. “Prince Harold,” as he’s commonly called in Memphis, specializes in creating situations in which he can reach a bargain at the expense of the Black Political Agenda, which he disrespects at every opportunity. He methodically undermines what there is of Black congressional power in order to achieve the status of power broker.

The racial oppression-based dilemma of Black wealth creation must be addressed with all the vigor and intellect at our disposal, but not in the dangerous context of Social Security, as the wily Blue Dog Harold Ford and his allies attempted.

Above all, expect Ford to behave opportunistically at all times – it is the only consistent aspect of his character. Ironically, this ability to sail on the winds of perceived political advantage can sometimes lead Ford to embrace positions he fervently rejected only a short time before. Remember, just a year ago Ford told the Nashville Scene, “I don't think government is an insurance program." Yet less than two weeks ago Ford seemed to have undergone a conversion. In a discussion with the Memphis Flyer newspaper’s Jackson Baker on making add-on investment accounts more advantageous to low income people, Ford experienced…thought!

”What happens if people lose? Will some kind of Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation be created?” he asked – making the case for a governmental machinery that would cushion against losses occurring through bad investments in sour lemons like Enron and WorldCom.

Amazing! Ford had finally reconciled himself to government as “an insurance program.” In 2005, at the age of 34, he seemed to have grasped the wisdom of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal. Will Ford be transformed into a dependable, honest, progressive politican, somebody Black folks can count on?

Not a chance. Harold Ford cannot be trusted.



March 17 2005
Issue 130

is published every Thursday.

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