Cleland as Mascot

Two months ago, Ann Coulter wrote an essentially accurate but mean-spirited critique of Max Cleland’s war record and its exploitation and misrepresentation by the Democratic party (which I responded to here and here). Michael Crowley has now written essentially the same piece for Slate but in a more measured tone.

The main new point brought out in Crowley’s piece is how different Max Cleland himself is now than he was as a senator.

Cleland is that rarest of breeds in politics: more interesting as a loser than he was as a winner. He was an extremely unimpressive, and extremely dull, politician. *** There was little reason to expect Cleland to be a star senator, and he wasn’t. Nor was he anything like the Bush-hating, Al Franken liberal he’s become on the trail with Kerry. Cleland was one of the Senate’s most conservative Democrats. In 2001 he supported the huge Bush tax cut. And although he now fumes that the Iraq war had no rationale other than Halliburton profiteering, he actually supported the Senate’s Iraq resolution in October of 2002. Sen. Cleland pretty well embodied the kind of Vichy Democrat Howard Dean raised $50 million attacking.

His assessment of the imfamous campaign ads run by Saxby Chambliss is also balanced.

But at the end of the day, Cleland was still a vote for Tom Daschle to be Senate leader. And so Bush set out to eliminate him. The president visited Georgia six times in support of Cleland’s challenger, Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss, turning the election into a referendum on the president’s popularity. Most of Chambliss’ attacks were based on Cleland’s most “liberal” votes on social issues like partial-birth abortion. But in the race’s closing weeks, 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 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,” 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.”


There’s something patronizing about the way Democrats now view Max Cleland—and 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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. andrew R says:

    At least Crowley doesn’t portray Cleland as a fool whos own mistakes were responsible for his wounds. Lets look at the facts facts:

    While disembarking from a transport helicopter, Capt. Cleland reached for a grenade he believed had become dislodged from his web gear. Later it was discovered that the grenade belonged to a young soldier new to the theater. That soldier had improperly prepared the grenade pin for easy detonation and had dropped it while coming off the helicopter. The grenade exploded and severely injured Capt. Cleland.

    He picked up a grenade that was improperly set by a fellow soldier. Hardly “droping it on his foot” like Coulter claims.

    Crowley, unlike Coulter, is able to write a civil critique of Cleland’s role in the presidential race.

  2. McGehee says:

    Crowley wrote: Cleland was one of the Senate’s most conservative Democrats.

    Uhhhh, Crowley trots out two particular votes to substantiate this, yet as a Georgia voter in 2002 I was presented with a much more comprehensive overview of Cleland’s Senate record. It does not in any way match Crowley’s description of him.