Public Policy in Practice with Harold Ford, Jr.

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Aaron Kelley, MPA '19
November 10, 2017

Above: Harold Ford Jr. (left) and Joe Watkins before an audience of Fels students and visitors.


On Friday, November 10th, the Fels Institute of Government welcomed Harold Ford, Jr., former Congressman from the 9th district of Tennessee as well as the current Managing Director and Senior Client Relationship Manager of Morgan Stanley, to talk about his life of service as a part of the “Public Policy in Practice” discussion series. This discussion was moderated by former White House Aide to President George H.W. Bush and political commentator Joe Watkins.


The talk began with Mr. Ford reflecting on his lifelong political philosophy of, “Let’s see how we can solve this.” As a liberal college student at Penn, Ford said, he would frequently find himself at a burger joint with four of the most conservative people in his class, chatting about politics. Over these modest meals, he joked, he and the others would talk for hours and ‘solve’ major political issues… in reality, learning that compromise and rational discourse can at least help people from opposite sides of the aisle come to real agreements. This philosophy and eagerness to solve issues foreshadowed his subsequent, and quick, entrance into the political world.


Ford then went on to say how, when deciding to run for Congress for the first time (in an attempt to succeed his father, Harold Ford, Sr.), he was severely criticized by opponents for being too young and inexperienced. Campaigning mainly involved Ford showing up to events where people neither knew him, nor were especially interested in getting to know him. His big break, he said in half seriousness, was when his campaign manager ran into his office and said that she had good news: that is, that he had been invited to give 35 graduation speeches. Intensely interested, Ford was excited to perhaps get some newly graduating young voters on his side… only to be told that he had the wrong idea--these were Kindergarten graduations.


Continuing in all earnestness, Ford described how such a strange little series of Kindergarten speeches truly changed his life. On the long drive with his father to another elementary school, Ford said, the two were listening to a local political talk show on the radio with hosts who only had bad things to say about him. However, as the two neared the school and were about to park their vehicle, a woman called in to the radio station and wanted to let the hosts know about the time that she had personally met Harold Ford Jr. When the hosts asked where this happened, the woman responded, “At my child’s Kindergarten graduation,” piquing their interest and leading them to ask for more information on what transpired. The woman then went on to describe how Ford introduced himself, bored the kids to sleep with a long talk, and then handed them their diplomas. She then praised his character (noticed first when he took photos with all of the teachers and school janitors) before extolling the virtues of his message: “Work hard, play by the rules, and keep God first.” From that moment forward, Ford recounted to his audience, he “became every grandmother’s grandson, every mother’s son, every sister’s brother,” and so on. He was soonafter labeled the “Kindergarten Congressman” by members of the press, but this turned out to be far from a negative for his campaign.


Ford was eventually elected from a slate of five candidates, although according to him, nobody took him seriously at first. Eventually, though, Ford became well-known in Congress as an active and rising Blue Dog Democrat and served in the body for 10 years.


With the story of Ford’s rise to Congress finished, Mr. Watkins asked the question of whether the House of Representatives was what he had expected. To this, he replied, “Yes, early on.” The topic then evolved to the state of elections and politics in general. According to Ford, gerrymandering and the low prevalence of open primaries are two major problems with the American electoral system. On the other hand, though, Ford also made it clear that he believed that the Trump-Sanders effect (despite his disagreements with both candidates) is an example of one of the good things currently happening in modern politics--that is, that the two-party system is being effectively challenged by nontraditional candidates. This effect was also, in his words, an example of politics actually working; as two other examples of this, the election of Trump was politics working (people were dissatisfied and made a change), as were the results of Tuesday’s polls (people decided that things were not going the way that they had previously hoped).


The topic of elections--specifically those of 2016 through 2020--was then explored more thoroughly. In the Presidential election of 2016, Ford said, Hillary Clinton did not do a good enough job of distinguishing herself from Barack Obama. “Despite the fact that we may think (Obama) did a good job,” he said, “nobody wants a third term of the same President.” Hillary Clinton would have had a better chance at winning, he said, if she had simply taken the good ideas from Barack Obama’s time in office while still being willing to step away from other ideas. He also said that Hillary Clinton did not seem to excite people, and that she seemed to have a series of campaign messages that were too specifically targeted. This confused the general population, as it made it difficult for them to understand the issues she supported. Although laughed at by many, Ford said, Donald Trump’s simple “Make America Great Again” was actually very smart because it gave people an easy-to-remember way of framing his positions in their minds.


Regarding the 2018 midterms, Ford said that Donald Trump will most certainly be a part of the narrative, no matter what. If a comprehensive and responsible tax or healthcare legislation is passed, there is a possibility that the Republicans will be able to have a unified platform to stand on. If neither of these happen, Ford said, it is difficult to predict what the party’s message will be in the next election other than, “We have no message.” Locally-focused candidates will probably have the most success, as they will be able to best tailor their messages to their direct constituents. Democrats, he also said, will need to make the case for winning national positions rather than just those in the state and local governments.


2020 was then discussed, with Ford predicting that the Democrats will have “around 20” candidates running in their primary. Contenders could range from Elizabeth Warren, to Joe Biden, to Bernie Sanders, to those inspired by Donald Trump such as Mark Cuban. Despite the many possible challengers, Ford is not yet certain that President Trump will lose in 2020, with everything depending on what happens with the Democrats and whether the current administration begins to act as an effective, unified government. Ford then suggested that “the old guard” in the Democratic Party needs to go, as they cannot reasonably expect to tell the electorate that they will lead America into the future with such aged leadership. Ford also stated his opinion that Donald Trump managed to win the Presidency in part because of his impeccable ‘instincts’ which, while perhaps brash and shocking to many Americans, actually truly reflect the opinions and thoughts of much of present-day America.


The interview was then concluded and questions were taken from attendees. Kellen Wartnow, MPA ‘19, asked about the extent to which the current Democratic Party is still relevant. After talking for some time about his opinions on the party, Ford summed up his personal thoughts by saying that, despite some disagreements with others in the party, he still feels that the “Democrats give the people who work to clean this building, or this campus, the best chance for their children to have good lives.” He also said that he sincerely hopes that the party returns to its simple, yet powerful and virtuous, roots of citizens just helping other citizens get from ‘Point A’ to ‘Point B.’


A second question revolved around the fact that “conspiracy theorists” are a large part of the modern American electorate and asked, “How do we deal with these irrational thinkers who cannot be reasoned with regarding politics?” Ford responded by saying that there has “always been an element of this group”, but that these kinds of people now “have bigger microphones and are more unapologetic” than ever before. Throughout history, however, there have always been people who would stand up against these kinds of groups. This, Ford says, is what needs to happen again now; devoted political minds need to be willing to tell these people, “You need to be quiet,” and work to move these people who deny reality out of the public eye.


To finish, Ford stated that the young people in the room with him could not allow themselves to become discouraged by what has happened over the course of the last year. “Decency, morality, goodness, and fairness cannot be disrupted,” he said, hopeful that some of these students and visitors, dedicated to serving America, may one day enter the political world themselves and effect positive change from within it.

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