A Ford in Our Future?

When Governor David Paterson appointed Rep. Kirsten E. Gillibrand as New York’s junior U.S. Senator last year to replace Hillary Clinton, most New Yorkers had never heard of the upstate Congresswoman. They were just glad the ordeal was over. The selection process, which included a lengthy and undignified public dangling of Caroline Kennedy, was a disaster for both the unqualified Ms. Kennedy and the inept Governor. Now the power elites are scrambling to keep Gillibrand in office in the face of a new challenge: Harold E. Ford Jr., lately of Tennessee, who has suddenly discovered that he is an ambitious New York pol.

The White House and local Democrats are unhappy because they don’t want a bloody and expensive Democratic primary fight in September. Our senior senator, Charles Schumer, doesn’t want to share the limelight with anyone of consequence. So Ford, who narrowly lost the Tennessee Senate race in 2006 and was the victim of an 11th-hour smear (“Harold, call me…”), won’t have an easy time of it.

Most New York Democrats would like the Senate seat to remain under a Democratic bottom. But as between Kirsten and Harold, there’s a dearth of exciting choices.

She swerved to the left when she ascended to the Senate to please the city and her downstate political sponsors. I’ve never been a huge fan of Hillary Clinton, and like much of the Senate leadership (as it turns out) I opposed her presidential ambitions; but the retrospective contrast to Gillibrand flatters her.

Part of the problem with Ford is that he, too, is moving to the left (on abortion, gay marriage, etc.) to please party bosses and voters. Like Gillibrand, he’s a centrist and an opportunist, two things that give New Yorkers pause. (Here’s the American political conundrum: you need the center to get elected, and sometimes you can govern from the center, as a place-holder. But you can’t lead from the center, because, as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, there’s no there there.)

Ford’s position on handguns is especially troubling to some of us metropolitan types. And he has cheerfully observed that he hunts, but only little birds and “things that can’t shoot back.” A senatorial pronouncement if ever there was one.

So one has to ask of Harold E. Ford: why? I’m excited to hear his rationale.

Knowing little about her, I welcomed the appointment of Gillibrand as a positive step for three reasons: because she’s a woman, not Caroline Kennedy, and from upstate.

Women are still vastly underrepresented in our political life, and while probably no more sensible they are arguably less corrupt (or corrupt in subtler ways) than men. At least they don’t get caught with their pants down. New York City politics is so vicious that the women who do succeed here tend to have salient personality disorders. But the men are no better. When a promising one comes along, down goes his zipper in free-fall. Which is how we got Gov. Paterson and Sen. Gillibrand in the first place.

Gillibrand certainly isn’t an ogre. My fear is that she isn’t much of anything. (Maybe we would be better off if women couldn’t vote and men couldn’t hold office -- or vice versa.) But thus far she hasn’t done much to define herself.

As for geography: if memory serves, New York hasn’t had an upstate senator since Charles Goodell left office in 1971, when the Democrats held a circular firing squad and a far-righty, James Buckley, took the seat once held by Robert F. Kennedy.

So last year we finally got an upstate woman: a cipher who noisily moved left to please us New Yorkers, and whom the tabloids gleefully portray as Schumer’s puppet.

Would Harold Ford be an improvement? It’s hard to say. But Kirsten Gillibrand, paraphrasing an old Broadway show line, could fairly ask: “What’s he got that I ain’t got?” It could get nasty. But there’s still time for Bill to get in the race.

Originally posted on http://whenfallsthecoliseum.com/2010/02/01/a-ford-in-our-future/