Max Cleland, liberal victim

Rich Lowry
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Posted: Feb 19, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

If you can't criticize the Senate votes of a senator in a Senate race, what can you criticize? Throughout the race, Cleland tried to hide behind the idea that his patriotism was being questioned. A columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted in June of 2002 that "this 'how-dare-you-attack-my-patriotism' ploy, replete with feigned outrage ... is a device to put Cleland's voting records off-limits." It didn't work. Chambliss won the crucial endorsement of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which made its nod on the basis of the two candidates' differing records on national-security and veterans issues. The VFW wouldn't have been complicit in a gutter campaign based on smearing a Vietnam veteran.

Another theme in the "Cleland was done dirty" argument is that a racist backlash against a proposed change to the Georgia state flag -- to de-emphasize a Confederate symbol -- helped sink him. But the issue didn't feature much at all in the Senate race. Chambliss sidestepped it. And in 2002, supposedly racist Georgian voters re-elected a black attorney general and a black labor commissioner while Cleland was losing.

Cleland's undoing was that he couldn't negotiate the dilemma facing many Southern Democrats -- how to vote liberal in Washington while appearing conservative at home. The Democrat was on record supporting countless tax increases, and voted with his party's leadership against protecting the Boy Scouts from a campaign to keep them out of public schools and against banning partial-birth abortion. In many of these votes, he parted ways with his more conservative and popular colleague Miller, thus creating a major political vulnerability. He lost fair and square.

If John Kerry wants to surround himself with veterans like Max Cleland, fine -- their country owes them a lot. But, please, stop the whining.