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April 2, 2004
Slate: Cleland Poster Boy for Victimization

Michael Crowley, the assistant editor for the New Republic, writes today in Slate about one of the sacred icons of the 2004 Democratic Party, former Senator Max Cleland. Kerry has used Cleland as an example of how eeeeeeevil Republicans get when they're on the campaign trail, but Crowley questions the basis of the Dems' almost religious belief in Cleland's victimization:

Cleland's image as Bush's ultimate victim suits Kerry's campaign all too well. There are no bold new ideas in the Democratic Party today, no coherent policy themes. Even Kerry's supporters are hard-pressed to explain what he stands for. What does define and unify the party is a sense of victimhoodand a lust for revenge. ...

Bush and Chambliss hammered at the fact that Cleland was voting with Senate Democrats against Bush's proposed Homeland Security Department because of its infamous provision limiting union rights. The message was that Cleland was kowtowing to big labor at the cost of protecting America. Most famously, Chambliss ran a vicious ad on Cleland's homeland security votes featuring images of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. In the popular liberal mythology, the ad disgustingly questioned Cleland's patriotism. "To this day I am motivated byand I will be throughout this campaignthe most craven moment I've ever seen in politics, when the Republican Party challenged this man's patriotism in the last campaign," John Kerry has said.

But that's not what happened. The ad, though sleazy in its use of Osama and Saddam, didn't question Cleland's patriotism. It questioned his political courage and judgment. It focused narrowly on his behavior in office and his actual votes against the Homeland Security Department. With images of Bin Laden and Saddam flashing onscreen, a narrator declared that, "As America faces terrorists and extremist dictators, Max Cleland runs television ads claiming he has the courage to lead." The ad then listed Cleland's votes against the Homeland Security Department and said he was stalling "the president's vital homeland security efforts." It concluded: "Max Cleland says he has the courage to lead, but the record proves Max Cleland is just misleading."

As Crowley notes, this hardly qualifies as an attack on Cleland, or a smear. Career politicians should expect that their voting record will be fair game in any election. The Bush administration didn't want the department to have to deal with onerous civil-service job protections that protect incompetent and/or malicious employees; the responsibilities of this new department are far too grave to tie up valuable resources when an employee just isn't cutting it. Cleland and other Senators held up the bill -- which the Democrats had demanded -- in order to pander to their Big Labor supporters. It wasn't unpatriotic, nor did Saxby Chambliss' ad claim that. It just claimed that Cleland was so beholden to special interests that it trumped any other considerations when he voted, a not-unreasonable analysis.

However, the Democrats at the time and to this day have painted this ad as a smear on Cleland's patriotism, a charge that corrodes the electoral process by claiming that questioning a politician's voting record equates to a smear campaign. After all, if a candidate's record has suddenly become sacred, what else is there to discuss? You can't argue policy without comparing the record to the rhetoric. All that leaves are personal, ad hominem attacks or meaningless platitudes. Crowley finishes:

There's something patronizing about the way Democrats now view Max Clelandand faux naive about the way they view his defeat. Was Chambliss' ad really that much worse than what happens in any election? Chambliss' criticism was based on Cleland's actual votes. The fact that Cleland volunteered for Vietnam and Chambliss avoided it means something, but it certainly doesn't mean that Cleland should be immune from all attacks on his Senate voting record. Georgians were voting for senator, not platoon leader, after all. ...

What Cleland brings to Kerry's campaign is the emotional power of victimizationa throwback to the worst of old-time Democratic Party politics, to its emphasis on victimhood over ability and virtue. But whereas in the past it was specific interest groupsminorities, women, gayswho were the noble victims, today it is the Democratic Party itself. Cleland is a reminder to fellow Democrats that they have spend the past three years being persecuted and that it's time to start avenging their humiliations. That's fine as far as it goes. But eventually Kerry will have to stand for something more than Bush hatred and payback. Revenge is not a campaign platform.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 2, 2004 9:19 PM

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