Whatever It Takes

On a sweltering Saturday morning in August, on the grounds of the old Rutherford County Courthouse just outside Nashville, where a Bible in a glass case is permanently turned to John 3:16, a young politician of considerable urbanity is convincing a crowd of his fellow Tennesseans that he's just a New Age version of a good ol' boy.

Harold Ford Jr., only 36 but already a 10-year veteran of Congress and now the Democratic nominee for the United States Senate seat that Majority Leader Bill Frist is vacating; a graduate of St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., with a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate from the University of Michigan Law School; and acclaimed by People magazine in 2001 as one of the 50 most beautiful humans on the planet, begins his remarks by sharing some assessments with the crowd. Bart Gordon, the local Democratic congressman who introduced him, is the member of the state's congressional delegation “who best understands the interplay of politics and policy,” Ford says, while Jim Cooper, the congressman from Nashville proper, “is the most cerebral.”

“Cerebral,” Ford repeats. “I just learned that word,” he says, with a quick smile that acknowledges the lengths to which he'll go to perpetuate traditional Tennessee folkways, even a folkway so dreary as the one stipulating that no pol should be caught in public using a $3 word.

Ford knows the folkways of Tennessee because he's the scion of one of the state's foremost political families, the Memphis Fords. His father was the congressman from Memphis for 22 years before standing down in 1996 so his son could succeed him. A Ford has been elected to the Memphis City Council regularly since 1971. The Memphis Fords are black pols in a heavily black city, but the younger Ford seems cut from different cloth. Plainly, he has been planning a statewide candidacy since he first entered Congress, and probably well before that. His entire political identity has been shaped by the fact that Tennessee has been growing steadily more Republican, conservative, and religious for two decades, and by the fact that only 16 percent of its residents are black. Ain't nobody gonna out-Tennessee him in this race.

Ford is just one of several prominent Democratic senatorial hopefuls running in swing or red states this year -- the list includes Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, James H. Webb in Virginia, Jon Tester in Montana, and Bob Casey in Pennsylvania -- endeavoring to craft a message that doesn't estrange potential supporters by stressing the party's liberalism on cultural issues. Some (Brown and Casey particularly) emphasize economic populism. Some (Ford and Casey in particular) accentuate cultural conservatism. Their success, or lack thereof, at the polls this November could provide their party with some badly needed direction in its quest to reach beyond its blue-state base.

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Ford is a campaigner in a class by himself. What he offers the Rutherford County crowd is a dazzling mix of brilliance and buncombe, high-tech and low crap, delivered with the perfect pitch of the most gifted campaigner the Democrats have had since (I'm not kidding) Bill Clinton. He affirms at a baseline level the purposes of government, which, in their underfunding of veterans' programs, the Republicans seem to have forgotten. “Shame on us if we can't send leadership to Washington that does two basic things -- take care of the least among us, and take care of those who sacrificed for us,” he says. He assails Republicans for letting spending get out of control: “Balancing the budget [something he supports a constitution amendment mandating] is a good old Tennessee tradition that ought to be practiced in Washington as it is in Nashville.”

Noting that he is traveling the state in a bio-diesel-powered pickup truck, he assails President Bush and the Republicans for having no alternative energy policy and for compelling American motorists to fund Islamic states that may be funding terrorists. Though he's supported every free-trade agreement since he's been in Congress (except, just recently, CAFTA), he is running as a born-again nationalist: His campaign was one of the first in the nation to run ads against the Dubai port deal. “We need to control our borders,” Ford says, and proceeds to conflate immigration and security issues and the multiplex and Beslan: “We don't want to learn that terrorists came across the border and exploded our movie theaters, or that they've blown up 25 schools in the Midwest.”

“I'm with the president when he's right,” Ford continues. “I supported him when he went to Afghanistan. I supported him when he stood up to Saddam. But I stood up to him on the Dubai ports deal; I don't support amnesty for illegals.” (Ford actually voted for the Sensenbrenner bill in the House.) “Bob Corker [the developer and former mayor of Chattanooga who is his Republican foe] will say, ‘Yes, yes, yes, Mr. President,' whether the president is right or wrong. I will bring Tennessee values to bear on these decisions.”

“They're gonna say I'm a liberal,” he says. “I believe marriage should only be between men and women. I don't know any better; that's how I was brought up. We didn't have any choice. Where I grew up, when you awakened on Sunday, you went to church. … I learned the faith thing the old-fashioned way! Me, a liberal? I chair the faith-based caucus!”

What's remarkable is that through all this -- staking out a position on immigration to Bush's right, arguing that our troops should stay in Iraq but help partition it into three separate states -- Ford has the crowd, which after all consists largely of Democrats and substantially of liberals, utterly entranced. He is throwing everything he can at Bush, at Frist, at Corker, from the right, from the left; he's Tennessee, and the Republicans are the Beltway, and the Democrats gathered at the courthouse are eating it up. They know the state has not elected a Democratic senator since 1988; they know that their own Rutherford County just elected its first Republican county executive ever; they don't know how to stop Tennessee's rightward drift.

Ford's answer to the drift is, to some extent, to follow it. His line of attack isn't entirely devoid of economic populism, but he cloaks these themes in a broader assault. When he assails the Republicans for their obeisance to big oil, he starts with the outrage of gas prices, then mixes in the outrage of global warming and the outrage of sending money to states that help terrorists. But he was one of a small number of House Democrats who voted for the bankruptcy bill; he's supported lowering the taxes on capital gains and estates; he supports raising the retirement age for Social Security to 70. The seniors I speak to at the courthouse, though, are willing to cut him a lot of slack, even on the question of retirement age (“so long as there's a special provision for seniors who can't work,” says one retired school teacher).

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Like Harold Ford, Bob Casey, the Pennsylvania state treasurer and the Democratic challenger to embattled Republican Senator Rick Santorum, is a celebrated junior. His late father, Robert Casey Sr., was governor of Pennsylvania from 1987 to 1995. But while there are real political differences between the two Harold Fords -- senior is a conventional African American liberal, junior more a quintessential neo -- no such gap separates the Caseys. The old governor was an anti-abortion social conservative and down-the-line trade union economic liberal. So is his son. The only question is whether the younger Bob has the elder Bob's aptitude for winning the big statewide race. Casey remains poised to unseat Santorum, but his lead had diminished by late August from double digits to roughly 5 percent or 6 percent. A Keystone Poll showed that 69 percent of Pennsylvanians had seen Santorum's ads while just 43 percent had seen Casey's -- an imbalance soon to end, since Casey has enough money now to be on TV for the duration of the campaign.

The terrain on which Casey is campaigning isn't all that different from Ford's Tennessee. Surprisingly, Pennsylvania hasn't elected a Democratic senator since 1991 -- Harris Wofford, who lost his seat to Santorum in the 1994 Republican blowout. At the presidential level, Pennsylvania remains a Democratic state, but by ever-narrower margins in each of the past three elections. While Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are Democratic strongholds, and while the upscale Philadelphia suburbs are increasingly Democratic, Republicans clean up in the rest of the state -- the so-called “T” (named after its shape), a terrain of long-shuttered steel and textile mills, of small farms and small towns whose Main Streets look pretty much the way they did in the 1940s.

On an uncharacteristically cool August Saturday, Casey is campaigning at the county fairs and union halls in the most isolated area of the state, the mountainous terrain north of Harrisburg. “The difference between the two parties [in this part of the state] isn't over abortion or gun control,” says Shannon Bilger, the stout young man who chairs the Mifflin County Democratic Party. “It's economics. Unlike Santorum, Bob doesn't support trade agreements that send jobs overseas.” The toll of such agreements is apparent that afternoon when Casey speaks at a steelworker union hall in Lewiston, which is a converted single-family home -- appropriate digs for a local whose factory has downsized from 4,500 employees to 700 over the past several decades.

Not that Casey dwells on abortion or guns in his speeches or ads. His positions -- anti-abortion, pro-gun, but in both cases more moderate than Santorum's -- are well known, since he's run statewide four times over the past decade (he served two terms as state auditor before being elected treasurer two years ago). This frees him to devote the lion's share of his speeches to themes of economic fairness.

To a considerable degree, Casey's message is the same as Ford's. “We have families that have to travel great distances in rural areas to get their groceries, to get to work, and you're paying record prices on gas,” he tells the crowd, speaking without a microphone, earnestly and engagingly but with little of Ford's distinctive fire. “Washington's answer is to give oil companies more subsidies. We should take those billions of dollars and place them in smart renewable and alternative energy.” He goes on to note that Santorum has been the second largest congressional recipient of oil industry money. And, like Ford, he points to the potential of clean energy industries to create new jobs.

Casey calls for a more activist government than Ford. Noting that Pennsylvania has lost 181,000 manufacturing jobs under Bush, and that 714,000 Pennsylvanians have lost their health insurance during that time, he advocates fair-trade agreements, a higher minimum wage, and more affordable health care, to be funded by restoring higher tax rates on the wealthiest Americans (an increase that Ford supports, too, though he places the emphasis on the need to balance the budget).

Strikingly, Casey says absolutely nothing about the war in Iraq. When a local TV reporter asks him about it later that afternoon, Casey begins by saying how American security in the 21st century requires a doubling of the size of our special forces. Then -- like Ford and most Democratic candidates in contested races this year -- he criticizes Bush's conduct of the war (and excoriates Santorum for his failure to hold Bush accountable for it), but declines to set a timetable for withdrawal of forces.

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Do Casey and Ford have the right stuff? How much social conservatism do Democrats need to recapture the ground they've lost with white working-class and rural voters? How much economic populism? And whose support do they lose in the process?

The bulk of Democratic polling this summer has found that the party's most effective messages concern the economy rather than the war. In surveying white rural voters in particular, a poll conducted this July by the firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for the Democracy Corps found that these voters' support for Republican House and Senate candidates, to whom they gave a 17-point edge over Democrats in 2004, had diminished to a nine-point lead today, with Democrats actually ahead in the Midwest. Not surprisingly, the poll concluded that to win a hearing from these voters, Democrats needed to affirm such issues as the sanctity of marriage between men and women and not to advocate a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq. That done, Democrats could make hay by running on the themes of “stagnant incomes, rising prices, and American jobs being sent overseas.” Pollster Stan Greenberg told me that the survey found that adding a populist spin to the Democrats' overall economic message did nothing for it among the general public, but boosted Democratic support by 5 percent to 7 percent among white rural voters. The most effective messages had “a strong nationalist component,” Greenberg says, “very strong on issues of trade and immigration.”

With his support for the House immigration bill, Ford certainly is well positioned to exploit his state's nationalist, if not xenophobic, tendencies, though his support for Wall Street on the trade and bankruptcy questions means that he won't be sounding some populist themes he otherwise could trumpet. (His closeness to Wall Street also is chiefly responsible for his having raised more than $750,000 in campaign funds from the New York City area by the midpoint of this year.) Then again, Ford will be able to count on heavy black and Democratic base turnout in any event.

The problem for Casey, says Paul Begala, a Casey campaign consultant, comes in such areas as the affluent suburbs of Philadelphia, “where a lot of Clinton Republicans are pro-choice. Montgomery County women are cross-pressured voters” between their social liberalism and economic centrism. Fortunately for Casey, Santorum's position on choice is so much more extreme than his that Casey holds a clear lead in polling of the Philadelphia suburbs.

If Casey and Ford win -- and are joined by other Democratic candidates like McCaskill and Tester -- they will certainly shift the party's Senate caucus somewhat rightward on cultural issues. By the same token, Casey, particularly if he's joined by such fellow economic liberals as Ohio's Brown and Bernie Sanders in Vermont, could well shift the caucus to a clearer advocacy of fair trade. The trade-off is, for many Democratic liberals and constituency groups, not terribly appetizing. But if Democrats are to become competitive again, it is most likely necessary.

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