Harold Ford, Jr. Featured in Exclusive Wall Street Journal Interview: Obama Should Focus on Education Reform

August 30th, 2008

COMMENTARY: THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW

Harold Ford Jr.
Obama Should Focus
On Education Reform
By BRENDAN MINITER
August 30, 2008; Page A9

New York

Barack Obama made history this week by becoming the first black man to claim the presidential nomination of a major American political party. He almost certainly won't be the last. Another rising — and arguably more substantive — star is former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford Jr.

Mr. Ford is just 38 years old. But he's been thinking deeply about politics for a long time. In 2002, when he was a mere 32, the Tennessee congressman challenged his party in the House of Representatives to elect him leader, saying that Democrats were “O and five” in congressional elections because they needed to move to the political center.

He lost that race to California's Nancy Pelosi. But Mr. Ford continued to push his party to embrace a more muscular foreign policy (he voted for the Iraq war in 2003) and not shy away from entitlement reform (he was willing to talk to President George W. Bush about Social Security reform in 2005).

In 2006, after losing a bid for the Senate, he was tapped to be chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council. This was a post Bill Clinton once used to credential himself as a “Third Way,” moderate Democrat on his way to the White House.

Mr. Ford is optimistic about the party's chances to control the House, Senate and presidency come January. But he says the stakes for Democrats will only be higher if they're in charge: “If we don't produce, it is likely we won't hold the majorities in both places, and it could hurt our president's chances at re-election.”

When I sat down with Mr. Ford at The Wall Street Journal's offices recently, I looked forward to hearing what he would say about the direction of his party and its liberal presidential nominee. I wanted to know what he thought of the party's leftward tilt on taxes, trade, energy and education.

Mr. Ford's answer: that his party was able to win control of Congress two years ago by running moderate Democratic candidates in Republican districts. That, he says, is what it needs to do to stay in power.

“If you look at the congressmen who won in 2006, the 'red to blue' as they call them as a group, not those who may have succeeded Democrats and are holding safe Democratic seats,” Mr. Ford said, “and you consider the special election races this year, in the last couple of months in Mississippi, Louisiana and Illinois, what you will see clearly in the ascendancy in the party is a moderate, mainstream, Democratic approach to taxes, to fiscal policy, to spending as a whole, to national security, foreign policy.

“I would contend that the Democratic majority is due to a moderate, mainstream, conservative philosophy — conservative, a lot of people interpret that the wrong way, but just a moderate mainstream philosophy in the party being on the ascendancy, as opposed to [a philosophy that is] sometimes further to the left, some may call liberal.”

On the numbers, I couldn't disagree. House Speaker Pelosi owes her gavel today to Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, and about a score of other conservative or moderate Democrats who won by promising voters a certain level of independence from the Democratic Party's liberal wing. (Mr. Shuler won his seat in 2006 by telling voters he wouldn't “automatically” vote for Mrs. Pelosi to be speaker if elected.)

But I'm skeptical of a conservative ascendancy in a party that promises tax hikes for the “wealthy,” balks at expanding domestic oil drilling, and opposes nearly every form of school choice that would give poor children a way out of failing public schools. So I press Mr. Ford on the apparent divergence between the DLC's moderate agenda and that of Mr. Obama and the Democratic Party.

“I don't think there are as many differences as people may think,” he said pointing to Mr. Obama's recent proposal, sketched out on these pages, to return the top capital gains tax rate to 20% — a rate almost a third lower than the rate set by Ronald Reagan in the 1986 tax reform. He also cites Mr. Obama's support for teacher merit pay.

“How we build an innovative agenda is what I am most concerned about,” Mr. Ford said. “There are some slight differences . . . There is a real difference on trade. I want to be clear, we don't make ourselves more competitive by closing our borders.”

But, he said of Mr. Obama on education, “I think he is open-minded. Let me put it this way, he hasn't come out in opposition [to school choice]. He is a pragmatist. . . . He's not looking to antagonize anyone. But he's not afraid to stir things up.”

Education is one of Mr. Ford's top priorities. That's because be sees fixing the public-school system as something that is essential for a dynamic, competitive economy — and as the means for creating opportunities for millions of kids.

Education is also an issue he is passionate about because, in part, he launched his political career from inside a kindergarten classroom.

In 1996, Mr. Ford ran for a seat in Congress that his father was vacating. But he soon found that being a 26-year-old scion of a political family had its disadvantages. He was attacked on talk radio for his lack of experience, and he had trouble lining up speaking engagements until finally two women lined up graduations for him at which to speak.

“I spoke to 32 kindergarten graduations. True story,” he says now with a laugh. “It was a weird thing, because these kids couldn't vote. I didn't know how I was helping myself. But I didn't have anywhere else to be, so I spoke at the graduations. . . .”

“Whatever works, in various communities, is what I support,” Mr. Ford told me. “On the education front, if we are unwilling to take head on the issues that are facing our schools, meaning teacher quality, meaning classroom size, meaning accountability, then we kid ourselves if we think we're going to solve these problems.

“We adopt a one-size-fits-all [model] in education, and it doesn't work. . . . I love charters, the charter school idea. Why? Because in some areas it actually works and it works well.”

In Congress, Mr. Ford supported creating a school-voucher program in Washington, D.C., that is now being used by hundreds of students to get a better education. It enjoys the support of the city's Democratic Mayor Adrian Fenty. But Democrats in Congress threatened to kill the program this year by starving it of federal funds. So I asked Mr. Ford if the program will be crushed by Democrats in the near future.

“It probably won't be,” he said. “Don't get me wrong, they've had to fight to keep it alive. They had to go up against their own member of Congress, their own delegate, who is opposed to it. The mayor wants it, and I view the mayor of D.C. almost like a governor because it is essentially a state.”

Mr. Ford stresses that education is among “the types of things Democrats are going to have to focus on . . . Not because we want to win elections, but because the country needs it.

“Without a serious, broad-based competitiveness plan for the country that organizes around energy and education, the country will continue to falter. The next 10 to 15 years, we'll be fine. But if you look past that 15 year horizon, we cannot expect to be the No. 1 center for innovation, for technology, for job creation, the No. 1 economic center, indefinitely.”

What Mr. Ford sees in Mr. Obama is the potential to break the logjam on education and other issues that has prevented fundamental reforms from passing in Washington. “I think the country could invest in him and may be willing to align itself with his vision, if he has a broad enough vision to change the country 10, 20, 30 years down the road.

“And those changes will obviously have to involve education, energy . . . entitlement reform, and will involve, frankly, thinking about these things outside of a Democrat/Republican box. . . . I think he may have the 12-to-18 month window [to pass real reforms]. He's gotta put some runs up on the board for people to say, 'I'm going to stick with him. I'm staying with him.'”

What's his advice for Mr. Obama? “Be bold, be daring and be big. Be realistic. . . . Lay out where you want to take us and say 'Here's why I believe we need to do this.'”

Moving forward, he said, “We got the majority, the question now is can we govern. And to govern, we're going to have to realize that that mainstream, moderate, ascendancy in the party has got to be reflected in the kind of priorities that we set.”

Mr. Miniter is an assistant features editor for The Wall Street Journal.