Former Sen. Max Cleland

How the disabled war veteran became the Democrats’ mascot.

Among the attendees at the Democratic National Committee’s gala “unity” dinner last week was former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, who now spends so much time on stage with Sen. John Kerry that he’s practically Kerry’s running mate. Cleland, who was defeated in a famously brutal 2002 campaign, has said losing his Senate seat left him humiliated and mired in deep depression, but you wouldn’t know it from his glamorous arrival at the unity event. I was standing near an elevator when the doors opened and Cleland, who lost two legs and an arm to a grenade explosion in Vietnam, rolled out in his wheelchair. He was almost instantly surrounded by a crowd of excited party donors who snapped pictures and jockeyed for his attention, as actual senators like John Breaux and Joe Biden strolled past unnoticed. This was no fluke. Cleland has become the Democratic Party’s newest celebrity. At Kerry campaign events, he often hands out copies of the Kerry biography Tour of Duty—autographed not by the candidate but by Cleland.

Cleland’s is a peculiar tale of failure parlayed into heroism. A year ago he seemed destined to be forgotten, but for a few paragraphs buried in some dry political almanac. But then came the angry liberal backlash against the Bush administration, and suddenly the way Republicans exploited terrorism and Iraq to defeat this diabled veteran became a symbol of everything wicked about the Bush administration’s post-9/11 politics. Now Cleland’s name has become his party’s bloody shirt, an emotionally stirring battle cry, and an easy reminder of who Democrats are dealing with. “If they’re going to try to question my commitment to the defense of our country, then I’m going to fight back,” Kerry said at a February campaign event. “Because they did that to Max Cleland … and I’m not going to stand for it.”

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 victimhood—and a lust for revenge. Cleland is compelling not because of anything he’s done—he was a mediocre senator and a clumsy candidate—but because of what was done to him. His consignment to a wheelchair only heightens this sentiment. The wheelchair itself is a metaphor for his political trauma. In this sense, Cleland is reminiscent of another fairly ordinary man: Abner Louima, who was brutalized by New York City cops in 1997 and became a symbolic hero to New York liberals convinced Rudy Giuliani’s law-and-order regime had gone too far. But New York liberals were never able to get the upper hand on Giuliani. And if the symbolism of Max Cleland defines his campaign, John Kerry won’t topple Bush, either.

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. He won his Senate seat in 1996 by a mere 30,000 votes, with just 49 percent of the vote. In that campaign, Cleland made up for his lack of political skill—the Atlanta-Journal Constitution noted that he “has never been known as a deep thinker” and was prone to “platitudes” in debates—by harnessing the emotional power of his war injuries, suffered in a noncombat situation when another soldier accidentally dropped a live grenade near him. His campaign ran ads of Cleland fighting his way through everyday tasks, like driving and getting dressed.

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.

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.”

Unfortunately, Cleland did a lousy job of responding to such attacks. As he was pummeled on national security—clearly the issue of the day as war with Iraq neared, Cleland stuck to stale Democratic themes like Social Security. Occasionally, Cleland and his supporters counterattacked, but they were ineffective. They reminded reporters that Chambliss had evaded serving in Vietnam and even tried in vain to drum up last-minute stories about Bush’s National Guard service. Cleland also called in former Vietnam veterans to defend him and hit back at Chambliss—including, most prominently, John Kerry.

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. And yet Democrats see the attacks on Cleland as categorically worse than any others. It’s hard to think that’s not partly an emotional reaction to a man confined to a wheelchair. But politics ain’t beanbag, as they say. Cleland is hardly the first man ever to be savaged in a political campaign. Michael Dukakis, to name one, had a pretty similar experience: He was brutalized by Republicans who painted him as weak on defense, and he failed to hit back effectively. But you won’t see Dukakis warming up crowds for Kerry any time soon.

But does Cleland really send a much stronger message than Dukakis would? He brings no particular talent to Kerry’s campaign. Apart from his status as a brave war veteran, he sends no positive message to the public. As a Vietnam vet who tried and failed to fend off attacks on his national security credentials, he undermines the claim that Kerry’s own war record insulates him from similar attacks. What Cleland brings to Kerry’s campaign is the emotional power of victimization—a 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 groups—minorities, women, gays—who 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.