Meet the new Florida. He is the former Democratic senator from Georgia, Max Cleland. Just as the 2000 Florida voting fiasco symbolizes for Democrats the election-stealing illegitimacy of Bush Republicans, Cleland's 2002 re-election defeat represents their low-blow tactics on national security. Cleland, who came back from Vietnam a triple amputee, travels often with Sen. John Kerry as the leader of the presidential candidate's "band of brothers." On the campaign trail, he is considered a sainted political martyr, the embodiment of liberal victimhood in the Age of Bush.
This is trumped-up mythology based on the idea that Republicans "questioned Cleland's patriotism" in 2002. Kerry captures it best: "To this day I am motivated by -- and I will be throughout this campaign -- the most craven moment I've ever seen in politics, when the Republican Party challenged this man's patriotism in the last campaign." Democrats make it sound as though Cleland's opponent, the four-term Republican congressman Saxby Chambliss, ran an ad something like this: "Sen. Max Cleland," -- cue the ominous music -- "is he a patriot? Georgia wants to know."
Of course, nothing remotely like this ran. The case for foul play rests on a tough anti-Cleland ad that Chambliss broadcast featuring Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The ad didn't morph Cleland into either of these figures or say that he supported them. It noted at its beginning that the United States faced threats to its security as the screen was briefly divided into four squares, with bin Laden and Saddam in two of them and the other two filled with images of the American military.
It went on to explain that Cleland had voted 11 times against a homeland-security bill that would have given President Bush the freedom from union strictures that he wanted in order to set up the new department. The bill was co-sponsored by his Georgia colleague Sen. Zell Miller, a fellow Democrat. Bush discussed details of the bill personally with Cleland, and Chambliss wrote him a letter prior to running his ad urging him to support the Bush version. Cleland still opposed it, setting himself up for the charge that he was voting with liberals and the public-employees unions against Bush and Georgia common sense.