After Mid-Term Losses, Dems Face Political Infighting

Former Congressman Harold Ford, a Democrat from Memphis, Tennessee and now living in New York, discusses the battle for minority leadership that's unfolding in the U.S. House of Representatives between Democrats James Clyburn of South Carolina and Steny Hoyer of Maryland. He also talks about the 2010 midterm elections, fiscal responsibility going forward, and his new book with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's Friday. And we thought you might be looking for a movie this weekend, so we decided to tell you about "Four Lions." Now, you might find it strange fodder for a comedy, but that's why you'll want to hear what the director and one of the stars have to say about it. It's about a group of bumbling jihadist terrorists. Really.

But first, to our weekly political chat. There is a brewing battle for spots in the Democratic leadership, what is soon to be the minority party leadership in the House of Representatives. That, as this lame duck Congress debates what to do about a deficit of more than a trillion dollars.

To probe all this, we decided to call on somebody who's been there and done that, former Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. He represented Memphis, Tennessee. He faced a sort of similar leadership race as the one unfolding now between representatives James Clyburn of South Carolina and Steny Hoyer of Maryland for the number two spot in the next Congress.

Now, you might remember that before Nancy Pelosi became the first woman speaker of the House, she led the House Democrats when they were in the minority. And one of the way she got to that seat was she contested for her seat with one Harold Ford, Jr.

After losing that battle in a run for the Senate in 2006, he moved to New York. He's become a vice president at Bank of America and he thought about running for the Senate in New York and decided not to, but he's keeping his hand in the game offering political commentary on such outlets as MSNBC. And he's also written a new memoir called "More Davids Than Goliaths: A Political Education." And he's with us now from New York. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. HAROLD FORD, JR. (Author, "More Davids Than Goliaths: A Political Education"): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the fight among the Democrats in the House for the number two leadership post. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the current minority whip, has already put his hat in the ring, along with Steny Hoyer, who's currently the number two, who's from Maryland. First of all, do you have a dog in this fight?

Mr. FORD: I do not. And when I ran for leader, minority leader back in 2002, the circumstances were, I guess there are some parallels, but they were different in marked ways. The primary difference was that Dick Gephardt was the leader of the Democrats, and we had tried Democrats some five or six times since the '94 election. I was elected in '96 and served for 10 years. Ran for Senate in 2006 in Tennessee and lost the race for Senate.

But when I ran against Nancy Pelosi, I figured it would be a very hard uphill battle, considering I got in the race five days before the race. Dick Gephardt stepped down after the November elections in 2002. Many of us were raising concerns that we needed a different leadership course. And Nancy Pelosi and Martin Frost, you may recall, were contesting for the second spot, the minority whip spot, the spot that Clyburn and Hoyer are going at each other now at.

And once Gephardt stepped down, I wasn't satisfied with Frost or Pelosi. I thought they were good people. They meant well. We were all good Democrats. But we needed a totally different direction. So I thought it would be hard to win, but I offered my candidacy. We only got about 30 votes, but I wanted to make clear to the leadership, and for that matter, Democrats around the country, that we needed to be willing to be more open-minded on taxes, needed to be willing to be more open-minded on how we create jobs, needed to more open-minded on education reform if we were to gain a majority of votes. If we were to eventually win a majority of votes in the House.

This race here, though, I do not have - I'm not supporting - when I chair the Democratic Leadership Council, I'm a vice chairman actually at Bank of America, so I spend most of my day out of politics, but I follow it. And certainly I think that whomever wins that race I hope that the person has to put forth to Democrats how they plan to help the country create jobs, how they address the big issues.

MARTIN: But the relevance here, I think is in part, you offering yourself as a fresh voice. I mean you're saying part of the reason we need a fresh energy, you know, fresh leadership, fresh face for the party, that isn't the element here. But there is a little bit of an ideological element, which is similar, in the sense that you were saying that you were a member of the Blue Dogs, you were associated with the more moderate wing of the party. And that is also kind of a divide we are seeing here with Mr. Clyburn and Mr. Hoyer. So, just speak to sort of what is the way forward for the Democrats in the wake of this defeat in the midterm elections. What is your take on that?

Mr. FORD: One of the things I hope they do. I think you framed it well. I think Steny is probably, Steny is more liberal than I am. And Jim is. But I think for this particular race, Democrats have to make a decision about the direction they want to go the next two years. And Jim and Steny both have got to lay that out pretty clearly to voters. Now, I think they ought to postpone these elections from next week. They ought to take the time, think about this over the next week or two. Some of my former colleagues have suggested that.

If there's a camp to be aligned with, it'd be the camp that says let's wait a moment and assess - digest and assess what has happened over the last week and a half. Just to suggest that it's just a communications issue, I'm not convinced that's the only reason that we lost 60 plus seats - Democrats did in the last week and a half. I think it may be a little more than that. And I think it's important for Democrats to step back and not rush to judgment. And what's the difference in waiting another week or two or after Thanksgiving to have this vote?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE. We're having our weekly political chat with former Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. He is now a vice chairman at Bank of America, but he's keeping his hand in. He has a new memoir called "More Davids Than Goliaths." It's a political memoir. But I want to talk more about what direction you think the party should go in. The big debate right now between those who are arguing - compromise that the lesson of the elections was that the Democrats didn't do enough to include or to show the American people that they were compromising with and negotiating with Republicans.

Others, progressives particularly, are saying that that's ridiculous. That when the Republicans lost big in 2008, their message was, no compromise. And that's why they reap the benefits, because they had a clear message.

Mr. FORD: I think they won because that the - I do agree with some of the national Democrats, including Pelosi, who says that the economy in the present - has said the economy and jobs were the driving forces. In addition, I think health care, certainly the health care reform bill eventually passed the House and Senate and the president signed. There's not a lot of clarity around the bill, and not enough clarity. And many people believe there's not enough cost containment.

I think that Republicans have decided to go in a very different direction. They don't have a hold on the Congress for that matter - the national political psyche. If they don't produce jobs, they'll find themselves out of the majority in two years.

I don't think Americans are rallying around the Tea Party as much as they're rallying around the notion of government limiting itself a bit, getting our debt under control, and ultimately figuring out a way to get the country to grow again so that jobs and opportunity can find their way to a new graduate from college and even those who may have lost their jobs, or who may be in a position where they're underemployed because of the state of this economy. That's what Democrats have to focus on, and this president as well.

MARTIN: Should they extend the Bush tax cuts or not?

Mr. FORD: I think we should cut taxes. Yes. I think - I'm sorry, you asked - I would extend the Bush tax cuts for two years. I would take the inheritance tax, which is at zero percent this year, and I would actually take it back to the '09 rate and extend that for two years. Now, I would implement - I would urge Congress, and if I were the president, I'd urge the Democrats and Republicans to pass a payroll tax holiday for one year.

It's an expensive proposition, but at the same time, I think it will put money in the pockets, first of all, everybody pays the payroll tax. And it would put money in the pockets of people in their neighborhoods and their communities and let them spend or save how they choose. Not to mention it would help a lot of small businesses that are having to - I mean just because you go to work for someone, you make 30, 40, 50, 60, $70,000 a year, it's a bigger expense for business people, the small business people know it, I might add, most Democrats and Republicans don't appreciate.

A small business in America is a business with 500 or fewer employees. I think a lot of people view a small business as having 5, 10, 15, 20 employees. It's a much larger enterprise than we think, and it's where the majority of jobs in America are created.

MARTIN: How does that square with the need to cut the deficit? I mean the current - this deficit commission is talking about raising the retirement age, ending the mortgage interest deduction, making cuts in Social Security. So how does extending these tax holidays and these tax cuts, which, by the way, you voted against when you were in the House?

Mr. FORD: I voted for some of the tax cuts. I voted for some of the taxes. When they came individually, I did.

MARTIN: How does that square with reducing the deficit?

Mr. FORD: I think two ways. One, I think there are two kinds of debt we accumulate. One is the debt we're accumulating as we try to get out of the crisis that we're in - this economic and - the economic hardship and fiscal crisis we're in, and, two, the debt we have accumulated over the years because of entitlements and because of the massive borrowing overseas.

Now, I like a lot of what the deficit commission introduced yesterday that they didn't want to end the mortgage deduction. Right now the mortgage deduction, as you know, ends at a million dollars. They want to drop it to a half a million dollars. Again, all their ideas may not be the way to go, but I think none of these choices are easy ones. I listened to Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi and some of the union leadership yesterday and I listened to some of the Tea Partiers and right wingers yesterday lambaste these recommendations.

I mean there are no easy choices here. We have a debt that is approaching our entire GDP. Many people believe that could happen in the next five or six years if we don't get our hands around it. So I don't know of any easy choices. We're going to have to probably raise taxes, and we're going to have to ask people to sacrifice more. And I think some of the recommendations are good ones.

Now, I'm 40 years old. I don't think there's anything wrong with saying that people 45 years and younger in this country, you won't see Social Security benefits until you're 70 years old. I'd be willing to sign a pledge. Now, people who've worked hard labor up in the 65, 66 years old, we would make exceptions. But the majority of people my age, matter of fact, looking at all the polling, we don't even believe we'll ever see a Social Security check, if you read the polling and believe it at all.

MARTIN: All right. Just a couple minutes. We only have about a minute and a half left. I do want to talk a little bit about your memoir, which is a very -it's very moving in a lot of ways. You talk about sacrifice, I mean, you - it paints a very interesting picture of public life.

I mean, many people may remember that you followed your father into Congress. He was the first African-American to win a congressional seat in Tennessee. You followed him at a very young age. And you talk about, on the one hand it's very exciting and you talk about how fun it was and how much you love it. On the other hand, there were a lot of sacrifices, a lot of public scrutiny, a lot of strain on relationships. What do you want people to draw from this memoir?

Mr. FORD: Look, my dad taught me the most important lesson in politics and public service and it's about people, and meeting people where they work, where they worship, where they learn and coming to understand people's needs and aspirations and trying your hardest to represent them. I didn't learn politics through attack ads and raising money and all the things, the trappings that make up politics today.

I learned it, I'd like to say, in a very honest way at four years old, anybody in politics and around that has these stories. At four years old, I worked in my dad's first campaign. I'll never forget my first campaign for Congress. I was discounted and dismissed. And had it not been for a bunch of kindergarten graduation speeches I was able to give, which I didn't think would amount to anything, but they were the only groups that people inviting me to speak, I would never have gotten my start. So, thank you for mentioning it.

MARTIN: What's the story? What's the lesson? You have 10 seconds. What's the lesson here? Try it anyway? Do it anyway?

Mr. FORD: My dad said, more Davids than Goliaths. He said all Goliaths are not bad, but all Davids are good. And good politicians represent Davids.

MARTIN: Okay, well, maybe you'll come to speak to my kids' kindergarten class 'cause you sound like you were great at it.

Mr. FORD: I look forward to it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Former Congressman Harold Ford, Jr., political analyst, banker and author of "More Davids Than Goliaths: A Political Education." It's his new memoir, and he joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. FORD: Thanks for having me.

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