Issue Number 17 - November 21, 2002




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Harold Ford, Jr. put on a spectacle last week for the sake of his own, outsized Senatorial ambitions and to further ingratiate himself to the right wing of the Democratic Party, the same people who have engineered the erosion of progressive politics in the U.S. since the mid-Eighties with their "new" and politically bankrupt, warmed-over Republican "ideas." Although Ford's lopsided loss for House Democratic Leader showed that he was never a serious challenger to Nancy Pelosi (CA), who garnered 85% of the vote, the 32 year-old demonstrated that he is a danger to Black political cohesion and a nasty personality, as well.

"Nancy Pelosi will be a better leader for my candidacy," said the graceless grandstander, adding, "I'm a better person as a result of it." Like almost every statement Harold Ford utters, his after-vote remarks were totally devoid of substance.

A chunk of Ford's 29 votes came from his fellow Blue Dogs - southern-based conservative Democrats noteworthy for their similarity to Republicans. However, Ford couldn't even rouse the enthusiasm of a majority of these two and a half dozen good old boys, and the bulk of his corporate-oriented colleagues in the 74-member Democratic Leadership Council faction also took their votes elsewhere. Ford sits on the executive board of the DLC, and apparently took the honorific seriously, initially announcing that he had 63 endorsements in the bag.

That claim also included nine members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which would represent about one-quarter of the CBC's strength. At the last minute, Ford's planned appearance with CBC membership was cancelled, and the final full Democratic Caucus vote was secret. However, it is the Black Caucus and Black political interests in general that were most damaged by Ford's publicity-seeking antics.

The short, sad sideshow

As the tally ultimately demonstrated, Harold Ford's only value to his rightwing friends is to feed the illusion of grave political divisions within Black America. His anemic and insincere leadership gambit - he does not really want to lead House Democrats, but to leave the chamber for the Senate - generated more newsprint than Connecticut liberal Rosa DeLauro's bid to become party caucus chair, the number two elected slot. DeLauro lost out to Rep. Robert Menendez (NJ) by just one vote, the only cliff-hanger of the party reorganization.

Ford captured excessive media attention because he is useful to those who paint pictures of an emerging Black conservative political class. What he really represents is a new class of opportunists who have tapped into historical African American yearnings to see members of the group in high places, no matter how illusory their "power" or how faithless their service to Black interests. In this sense, Rep. Ford is an exploiter.

It was no surprise to find Georgia Rep. Denise Majette in front of TV cameras among the clutch of congresspersons seconding Ford's nomination. The press conference was Majette's first major act since defeating Cynthia McKinney with less than 20% of the Black vote, in August - inflicting the Black Caucus with its most non -representative member. But St. Louis Congressman William "Lacy" Clay is another, far more disturbing matter. Clay is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus as well as the CBC, son of William Clay, Sr., a brilliant and principled Black Caucus founder who served for 32 years in the House. At 36, "Lacy" Clay is part of Ford's age cohort, but chronology is not principle. Although Ford's ill-fated sprint toward leadership is characterized in some circles as a "protest" against the perceived smothering of youthful legislative aspirations, it is difficult to imagine how such grievances trump Ford's vote for Bush's War and his numerous entanglements with congressional foes of the CBC and PCC. Apparently, "Lacy" Clay thinks so.

After the defeat, Ford reported that his father, the House veteran to whom Harold owes his name and his seat, called to say that he was proud of his son. Along with the Hooks family, which spawned former NAACP Executive Director Rev. Benjamin Hooks, the Fords have long been associated with leadership in Black Memphis. Young Harold is not a Trojan Horse, like Denise Majette. He was not lifted from obscurity as a stealth candidate of the rich, white Right, to be hurled as a weapon against established Black leadership. Rather, Ford lays claim to a long legacy - and trashes it, for his own ambitions. People Magazine's choice of Ford as one of the "50 Most Beautiful People in the World" notwithstanding, his activities are ugly and dangerous.

It is not the critics of Ford, but his apologists, who fuel division in Black ranks and play into the hands of those who would dismiss African Americans as a splintered and irrelevant political force. Ford's attempts at upward mobility and high visibility are based on outrageous, cynical publicity ploys designed to set him apart from the mainstreams of Black political thought in the eyes of the media. This is the context in which Ford's role in last week's House Democratic reorganization should be understood.

One good man standing

South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn rose to vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus on the strength of progressive ascendance. Clyburn beat out two DLC candidates, one of them Black Queens, NY Representative Gregory Meeks.

(The third Black on the DLC is Juanita Millender-McDonald. Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop is Harold Ford's Black companion in the Blue Dog Democrats. At the time of this writing, BC was unaware of affiliations of new members Denise Majette and Alabama's Artur Davis, who rode a wave of Right financing to replace Rep. Earl Hilliard. Both McKinney and Hilliard were members of the Progressive Caucus.)

Meeks was gracious in defeat, having decided not to force a runoff with Clyburn, a former chairman of the CBC. "I decided to step aside so we could come together as a party," Meeks said. "There's a time to battle and a time to move on. Jim's a good man."

That he is. In a state awash in truly wild Confederates, Clyburn has held his 53% Black district with principled dignity while maintaining a close, working relationship with the state's other House Democrat, John Spratt, who was elevated to Assistant to Leader Pelosi. Spratt is moderate by national party standards, liberal for a white congressman from South Carolina. More importantly, he is neither a Blue Dog nor a DLCer - the organized forces of compromise with the GOP. Neither is the new minority whip, Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer.

Pelosi's victory is significant not merely because of her membership in the Progressive Congressional Caucus, where more than half of Black members hang their ideological hats, but because the reorganization amounted to a purge of the DLC, none of whose current members remain in House leadership. The ease of the Left's takeover may be deceptive, however, signaling only that the DLC is still in shock over the November 5 defeat - a repudiation of Democrats with no identity. Its members will continue to work deals with the White House from the outside, all the while blaming Blacks and liberals for being out of step with "the people." Harold Ford will doubtless be loudly among them, admiring his newly higher profile in the mirror of television.

History has lessons

Twenty members of the U.S. Senate have also been meeting to figure out how to act like Democrats for a change. They, too, will have to contend with the DLC, which is anxious to "mend fences" with the White House by moving even further to the right.

At this juncture in history, with war looming, civil liberties slipping away and economic collapse thinkable, it is vital that we examine how Blacks and progressives got into such a sad state. 1980 was a critical year. President Jimmy Carter sought re-nomination, having thoroughly betrayed Blacks and labor during four years of non-stop regression. (Public television has been re-broadcasting an examination of the Carter years, bringing back the full flavor of the Peanut Man's destructive powers.) Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy attempted to organize a revolt.

As now, Blacks were the core of Democratic dissatisfaction with Carter. Absent the strongest Black support for the insurgency, Kennedy's challenge to a second Carter term was untenable. African American officeholders caved, unable to contemplate the thought of breaking with a sitting Democratic President, even one who had ceased pretending to be a progressive. Kennedy had no choice but to disassemble his candidacy. The ties that bound the progressive coalition unraveled. On his own record, Carter lost by a landslide, ushering in 12 years of Reagan-Bush.

In the aftermath of the Kennedy collapse, BC co-publisher Glen Ford, then a political columnist for Encore magazine, wrote:

How did it happen? How did the most bumbling President in modern times manage to betray every element in his 1976 constituency, all the while committing the most public and embarrassing blunders, and retain his party's support? And what role did so-called Black leadership play in this shameful chain of events? Undoubtedly, historians will be examining the progressive defeat of 1980 for decades to come - and make no mistake about it, there is nothing but defeat for Blacks, working people, and the poor in the coming contest between the two conservatives, Carter and Reagan. We have been left with a choice between proven evils."

History has, in hindsight, been drowned out by the revisionist voices of the corporate media, who choose not to remember anything. For the Democratic Party, 1980 was much like 2002.

Jimmy Carter had opened the door for Reagan, laying the groundwork for his own defeat, and for the neo-liberal policies of the Democratic Leadership Council that emerged in the mid-Eighties, under New Jacks Bill Clinton, of Arkansas, and Tennessee's Al Gore. The DLC formula was simple, a Southern Strategy from the very beginning. Blacks had nowhere to go, it was reasoned, and could to be taken for granted as a 25 - 30% Democratic base vote in the South. To retain the Party's remaining southern offices against the Republican White Man's Party, Democrats needed to tailor their messages to minorities of white voters to bring the election day total to 50% plus one. The DLC was formed as a southern, white minority faction of the national party, a close cousin to the GOP.

The DLC's voice soon became national - southern political voices tend to reverberate in the U.S. Significant numbers of urban white Democrats found themselves doing math in the same, faulty fashion as the DLC's southern founders. The two parties merged and blurred under the inexorable logic, leading inevitably to Carter-like defeat.

The process does not work in reverse. DLC Blacks such as Harold Ford cannot empower the Black minority of the voting public, which has permanent interests in a progressive agenda. They can only disrupt and confuse African Americans and their allies, and create the conditions that will weaken the Black vote, through splintering and disappointment-induced apathy. That is the danger of Harold Ford, the opportunist, and Denise Majette, the Trojan Horse.

No win without a try

Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi promises to "stand our ground" in principled battle with the White House and its allies, when common ground cannot be found. We shall see. George Bush has left little if any common ground worth compromising about. Why not fight?

Had the Congressional Black Caucus and other Black officeholders listened to the sound of their own repeated analysis and joined - no, led - Kennedy's rebellion in 1980, Reagan might well have won, anyway. The media would, of course, have blamed the defeat on Blacks and what were then called "McGovernites." So what? The pundits went ahead and lumped Jimmy Carter in with Blacks and McGovernites, anyway, proclaiming the whole bunch equally ineffectual, marginal, politically dead. Last week, the corporate media rendered the same verdict against Pelosi and her team, before they even took over.

We must listen to our own voices, for a change. That includes Rev. Jesse Jackson, who usually talks right even when he does wrong. "We cannot wait for Ms. Pelosi or whoever," said Jackson. "We have to lead the march. Every major break has been when we were tough-minded enough."

We are the heart and soul of social democracy in America. We are the indispensable force for change. If Pelosi surrenders, like Kennedy in 1980, it will likely be because we have not provided the backbone. Jesse Jackson, always good for another quote, is right on point: "We do have to leap tall buildings."

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