Middle Men

Article excerpt

The blue base is looking for old liberals, not new Democrats.

TWO WEEKS BEFORE the midterm elections, Tennessee's Democratic Senate nominee, Harold Ford, received a boost most candidates can only dream about. The five-term congressman was featured on the cover of Newsweek for a story-headlined "Not Your Daddy's Democrat"-touting him as the type of candidate his party would need to reclaim control of Congress.

It was a compelling storyline. Ford is the 36-year-old son of Memphis' most influential black political family yet is equally at ease with his state's white rural voters. He is a red-state Democrat who is conservative on values and hawkish on national security, backing President Bush on the Iraq War almost as enthusiastically as his Republican opponent. He is young, ambitious, and most of all, difficult to dismiss as a conventional liberal. The election results, however, were anticlimactic. Ford came up just short in his bid to succeed departing GOP Sen. Bill Frist, becoming only the Democrat to lose a close Senate race in 2006, even as his party won majorities in both houses.

But Ford isn't about to leave the political scene. In January, he became chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), an influential organisation that has spent the last two decades trying to move the Democratic Party to the center. Ford was a good pick for both sides. The DLC won a major spokesman who had ties to its sometime critics in the Congressional Black Caucus, would potentially help broaden the centrist group's appeal, and, most importantly, wasn't "independent Democrat" Joe Lieberman. The ex-congressman retained a visible position to help him in a future run for statewide office in Tennessee.

Ford may nevertheless be a symbol of the electoral problems faced by New Democrats. Critics charge that the 2006 election offered a stern rebuke to the DLC's model for how Democrats should campaign. Many of the party's winning candidates were not cautious, business-friendly centrists but outspoken populists who were critical of large corporations, income inequality, and free trade. And rather than triangulating on Iraq, many of them took on the war directly.

While Ford was narrowly losing in Tennessee, Democrat Sherrod Brown beat Republican Sen. Mike DeWine by a double-digit margin in Ohio. Brown was adamantly antiwar, staunchly liberal on social issues, and outspoken about what he described as "the betrayal of the middle class and the working poor" by the country's economic elites. He doesn't just inveigh against NAFTA-style trade agreements on the stump; he actually wrote a book titled The Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed. Instead of Newsweek, Brown appeared on the cover of The Nation. The accompanying story quoted the progressive writer Thomas Frank calling him "the rare Democrat who actually understands what's the matter with Kansas."

It is easy to imagine such a candidate playing well in Massachusetts or Vermont Brown won in Ohio, a crucial swing state that gave George W. Bush his 2004 margin of victory in the Electoral College. Only a few years ago, the conventional wisdom was that Ohio had become too conservative for a Democrat like Brown to win statewide.

Another example of a winning Democratic candidate outside the DLC mold is Virginia's Sen. James Webb. Webb was certainly a "different kind of Democrat"-a former Republican who served Ronald Reagan, a supporter of gun rights, and a gruff former Marine-but not in the way that phrase is usually understood.

Like Brown, he was passionately antiwar and caustic in his criticism of free trade and businesses that outsource jobs overseas. Shortly after Webb defeated Republican Sen. George Allen, he published an op-ed piece decrying the concentration of wealth in America-in the Wall Street Journal, of all places. Webb may have benefited from Allen's numerous self-inflicted wounds, but his path to a Senate seat from still-reddish Virginia was certainly not according to the prescriptions of the DLC's Blueprint magazine. …