Harold Ford and Markos Moulitsas, met Sunday, August 12th, on Meet the Press. It was a friendly debate (transcript). But if this debate were a book I would have to title it: “The Bourgeois and the Blogger.” While these monikers are not mutually exclusive one of the questions I want to examine in this match-up is that of the centrist (for either party) label versus the progressive label (usually reserved for Democrats).
Markos Moulitsas (Kos), also a native Chicagoan is ex-military and believes himself and his book: Crashing The Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, to have single-handedly harnessed and “organized” what is now called the net roots populist movement. He has critics. There were no less than thousands of groups and blogs already devoted to populist politics. I know because I was one of them, over the past seven years, time well-spent crawling the Internet looking for like-minded groups and found them. When the Internet came of age, so too did the visibility and the voice of those once-silent keyboards; already in full bloom—ripe with people pushing the buttons to the tune of “power to the people.” Kos might do well by rebooting his thinking under the cover of “who started what movement?” Harold Ford hails from a near-political dynasty. His pedigree and ambition are impressive:
In 1974, Harold Ford beat a white incumbent to become Tennessee’s first black congressman. That same election sent John Ford to the state Senate and brother Emmett Ford to the Tennessee House. Harold Ford kept his congressional seat for 22 years, and when he retired in 1996, he turned it over to his son, Harold Ford Jr., who is now considering a run for the U.S. senate.
He famously lost his bid for the Senate with the help of familial scandals and racy ads holding him out as a playboy who liked white women. He moved on to his current role as DLC chairman, a post formerly occupied by Bill Clinton who made a surprise visit to the recent DLC convention, where he said that “the best poverty program is a job." His statements indicating unhappiness with the DLC's failure to move forward and address poverty issues head on. On all fronts, it seems that Harold is fighting an uphill battle to win over the left, liberal and progressive young people to his centrist position. Has centrism become a dirty word? Is it now a third-rail issue popularized mostly by net-root negativism? Kos seems to be the leader of that pack with his, not-so-original call for Democrats to abandon the center, stand firmly progressive while quietly moving to the far, far left. And when pressed for more clarification, Kos said he did not want to “pigeon hole” anybody, nor did he want to be a “king maker” by declaring an endorsement on national TV. He’s modest like that.
Kos, ever the gladiator, continually chipped away at Ford’s argument for centrism as a legitimate Democratic position. The centrist, by definition, is middle-of-the road, more Continental than American in terms of popularity. And it also suits Ford’s continental air. Kos sports a cavalier attitude about the risk of rocking the boat to the point of tip over. I think that is exactly Ford’s concern. He played the Clinton card, in his debate and at the convention, unsuccessfully. However, Bill is the successful poster child of centrism. So, if you want to win—trot out Bill! While that may be true, it does not seem to be working for him. In that sense, by sheer popularity, Kos won the debate and the argument of the day—the Democratic Party should embrace “progressivism” and leave the centrist moniker behind. Kos argued that the gray-cast Democrat is no longer supportable. If Democrats move away from the center, then they will be more successful.
However, the truth of centrism is not on the Democratic side. One must ask whether or not they were ever really the masters of the political center. In past decades, the GOP has demonstrated that it did master the centrist position. George Bush and the Neocons ensured success for many years to come, Iraq war not withstanding. They are good at word play and word wars. This debate between Kos and Ford demonstrated that debates are in the final analysis word play. One can separate the word “democrat” and “democracy” from the Democratic Party. Ditto the word “centrist.” However, words, words, and more words all add up to semantics. A recent book by Geoffrey Nunberg, Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism Into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood (translation: the Right has renamed liberals with cultural cachet), explores that phenomenon. However, Nunberg does this and more by actually suggesting that Democrats, in general, are loosing the political war of words, while the GOP is winning. Do they simply have bigger vocabularies, better advisors or is it easier to reach the center from the Right? The following quote sums up by observations:
…the word "progressive" was fresher and more inclusive than "liberal", which in the 1990s had become something of a bad word, a cultural stand in for personal decadence and moral decadence… progressive is not synonymous with liberal. So please people. Stop saying progressive when what you really mean is liberal.
It has been a verbal bait-and-switch for years with the GOP. They have taken God more seriously than most liberals have. Moreover, were not afraid to talk about Him on the campaign trail, after all, GOP is just one letter off from GOD! In my recent “George and the GOP” article I called, without thinking, Gov. Romney “the perfect centrist.” If we stick with that logic for a minute, it would follow that perhaps Republicans, of all stripes, have a less-risky chance at raising the centrist flag this election cycle. Rudy Guiliani (former NYC mayor) is also the perfect centrist and former Democrat (1970’s). One reason: both have been elected to high political office in states that are generally liberal. Romney, one-term governor of Massachusetts, also lived in France. In short, I believe both can and will successfully hoist the sails of centrism, mostly as an unintended consequence. Who are they at heart? Who knows, I predict these two centrists will rise high as the best flip-flop candidates ever. No doubt, the GOP will make a strong showing at the polls, primaries and upcoming caucuses in spite of their centrism or naked “neoconism.” As for the Democrat voting block—the jury is still out.
Just as many Republicans turned left with little remorse—we cannot discount the reverse. Newton’s third law informs us: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. There will be Democrats abandoning the party en masse, especially if Hillary Clinton is the nominee. Where will they go? With the Hill looking more like Central Park—it will be a no-brainer for them to seek out Republicans.
Democrats like Kos make me dislike them. He mentioned more than once “you would be senator right now.” Huh? I thought that a low blow, from a damn blogger. Kos talked to Harold as if he was some run-of-the-mill Republican. Give him a break. Where did Kos hide his nuanced side? Harold Ford exudes class even under fire. He will find his niche and return to political office where he belongs. As for Kos, he was well, uncouth. He looked unpolished and uncertain sitting next to the handsome former congressman. It was none of his bleeping nuanced business to mention Harold’s political status. That was both unfortunate and unneccessary because Kos held the trump card.
Finally, I wanted Harold Ford and centrism, as political philosophy, to win the debate, and if I close my eyes, I can believe that he did win. Nevertheless, honestly, the numbers are against him and the centrist-leaning Democrats, therefore he lost. If this debate were, say a beauty contest Ford’s appearance would have been more pleasing. What's next Harold—do like Hillary, move to another state and run for a vacant Senator or Congressional seat—just kidding. If that's not to your liking, become governor of Tennessee and then run for president.
As for Kos, his future looks bright too. He can continue to reap the keyboard net whirlwind. His "ideas" will catch on as time goes on and the first primaries draw closer. Everyone will be watching the bouncing ball. Devoted net roots populism may be a new direction, but not a new idea. It all reminds me of that old saying: everything old is new again. So, did Kos and Harold reach rapprochement? They shook hands with each other but did not click with each other, both confident that each had won the debate.