The new head of the leading group of centrist Democrats lashed out Wednesday at what he called the "hypocrisy" of Republicans who overdo their talk about religion.
Harold Ford Jr., the charismatic Tennessee congressman who lost a nasty Senate race last year, on Thursday was named chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, the party's most influential centrist group.
Ford made his debut at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast, a Washington institution for reporters. Once called the Sperling Breakfast, after founder Godfrey Sperling, the breakfasts — which started in 1966 — are a chance for politicians to float ideas and field questions in a relaxed atmosphere.
But business gets done: Everything is on the record. And Ford did not disappoint the sleepy-headed journalists, offering a passionate response when asked about the role of faith in politics. During the question-and-answer period, Ford said candidates should not hesitate to discuss the role religion plays in shaping their positions. But he added that faith "is often used by some to beat up on or whip up on others, and the Bible that I read doesn't suggest that you do that."
"God works in mysterious ways," Ford said. "Some of the nomenclature and jargon that's used by those who invoke faith regularly - compared with some of their actions and behavior and conduct - I think has raised concerns on the part of many that maybe those who preach it the most aren't practicing the most. I pray for all of them, and would hope that they'd be able to find some healing and wholeness in their lives, but that they would also see that maybe they should reflect a little before they go lashing out and attacking others. I think voters get it, too. The hypocrisy on the part of some was so interesting in this last election."
In November, Ford, age 36, lost by 51 percent to 48 percent to Republican Bob Corker, but told the breakfast several times that he plans to run again. "Between political jobs?" he joked when DLC founder Al From noted that an earlier chairman was Charles S. Robb after he was Virginia governor and before he was a U.S. senator.
Ford succeeds Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who's heading off to run for president. His other predecessors include former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.
Ford was presented at the breakfast by From as a rising star who will help the group develop a new generation of leaders to pursue the group's pro-growth, pro-defense policies. "We will be aggressive. The agenda will be ambitious," Ford said. "We certainly anticipate the conversation attracting the leading minds in our party, the leading candidates in our party."
During the question period, Ford recalled Steven Thomma, chief political correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, from a catfish restaurant on the Tennessee campaign trail toward the end of the campaign, and joked that the reporter almost couldn't ask his question because he was eating coleslaw. "When I left that, I thought you were going to win," the reporter said.
"So did I," Ford said, to big laughter.
"What happened?" Thomma asked.
Ford didn't seem interested in a detailed autopsy. "It's over with - we didn't win," he said. "We ran a hard campaign. A lot of things happened right there at the end of the race. I don't mean to be flippant about your question. I've sat down at looked at the numbers, and I know I want to do it again one day. In my state, it takes a few times to run - sometimes one or two times to run before you win."
Then he spoke about the oft-discussed phenomenon of black candidates, including former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who do better in polls than they do at the ballot box, apparently because white respondents say they're going to vote for an African American and then don't. "One thing that was very interesting in the last week were the polls that came out showing us down double digits, which we never were, and I think that probably played a little bit of role in sapping a little bit of the momentum," Ford said. "People kept calling it a 'Wilder tax.' … I assume it means if you're a black guy, you've got to be way ahead because you're going to lose votes on Election Day. Well, the opposite happened here, according to the polls. We actually gained, and came within 49,000 votes of winning. … We'll run again, one day."
Ford made it clear that he still resents some tactics of Republicans. Asked what he had learned about race in the contest, and what advice he would have for Sen. Barack Obama in his presidential race, Ford replied: "Run hard and be honest and put it in the voters' hands. That's all you can do." He also said: "This stuff on race, you'd probably need to ask my opponent."
One Republican ad taunted Ford for his attendance at a Playboy magazine party at the 2005 Super Bowl. Over eggs and sausage on Thursday, Ford reprised one of the greatest lines from the whole '06 campaign cycle: "I made clear: I love Jesus. I love girls. And I absolutely love football."
By Mike Allen
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