Harold Ford Jr., urges refocus of national priorities at Bryan Leadership Lecture

Delivering Elon Law's fall 2009 Bryan Leadership Lecture on November 5, Democratic Leadership Council Chairman Harold Ford, Jr., urged Congress and President Obama to scale down health care legislation and to focus instead on job creation and the war in Afghanistan.

Harold Ford, Jr.

Ford said the November 2 gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia should be taken as a signal in Washington to change course in federal policy priorities.

“This President and this White House have to take a few lessons from the other night,” Ford said. “The country believes in him. They want change. They believe in his message of hope. But hope doesn’t produce jobs and hope doesn’t make payrolls.”

Speaking at the Carolina Theatre in downtown Greensboro as part of Elon University School of Law’s Joseph M. Bryan Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series, Ford said that the lack of job growth and the specter of tax increases within health care legislation had a significant impact in the elections.

“John Corzine is no longer the governor of New Jersey for two reasons, taxes and jobs,” Ford said. “Bob McDonald beat Creigh Deeds in Virginia…he found his way back to the middle and touted that he would help create jobs and keep taxes low.”

Outlining a policy agenda that would include removal of the public option from health care legislation to pass instead what he termed a large health insurance reform bill, Ford said that enacting job growth legislation and addressing the war in Afghanistan were the two most critical priorities in year ahead.

“The next twelve months, how Congress, how the White House, and how our political class in this country conduct themselves, I believe will determine in large part the way our economy looks going forward, the way politics in Washington looks going forward, and perhaps the most important, the way America is positioned in the world going forward,” Ford said.

In addition to new policy priorities, Ford called for a new tenor of debate in national politics.

“The system is strongest when both parties are offering ideas and competing along that continuum,” Ford said. “If the competition is who can yell the loudest, whose commentators on cable networks can yell the loudest or say the most things, even if those things are not true, that doesn’t serve us, it doesn’t serve the political system, and it certainly doesn’t serve our future.”

Ford said the recent election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District should be instructive to Republican leaders as well. “The inter-fighting within the Republican party about being conservative or really conservative or way out there conservative, if Republicans want to continue to fight along that continuum, they’ll continue to lose,” Ford said.

Ford concluded by calling on the Obama administration and Congress to resolve the health care debate by reducing its scope, and to move on to economic and foreign policy issues that he said are essential to the country’s long term standing.

“The willingness to recognize when you’re right, and the courage to say when you’re wrong and correct it, in so many ways that’s the true test of leadership,” Ford said. “If there was ever a time in which we were being tested, now is that moment. If there was ever a time in which the kind of leadership that has defined America’s greatness since our inception was needed, that time is now too.”

Ford was named Chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council in January of 2007, after serving five terms in Congress from 1997 to 2007. He is also a news analyst for NBC and MSNBC.

In opening remarks, George R. Johnson, Jr., Dean of Elon University School of Law, called Ford one of the most dynamic young leaders of our time. “He has sought to prod our nation from its occasional political and social complacency,” Johnson said. “He has been willing to challenge the political and social orthodoxies of the day and to ask us to look beyond our own individual wants and preferences to forge a commonwealth of strength and prosperity for all our citizens.”

Erin O’Connell, a 2009 graduate of Elon Law and a new member of the Virginia State Bar, introduced Ford, saying he had inspired her to public service. “Ever an advocate of the belief that America is at its best when the government is working for all its citizens, he is constantly working to promote that ideal, and to quote President Clinton, ‘the embodiment of where America ought to go in the 21st century,’” O’Connell said.

The Joseph M. Bryan Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series is an integral part of Elon University School of Law’s commitment to develop lawyers who are also leaders. Endowed through a generous gift from the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation of Greensboro, N.C., the Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series brings accomplished leaders from a variety of disciplines to Elon to share their experiences and perspectives with students and faculty.