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Accolades and advice to Cleland

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted July 7, 2003

The Washington Post, in a cover Style Section piece, features former Senator Max Cleland who is extremely bitter about his defeat last November and therefore finds it very difficult to inspire the young students at American University, where he now teaches, about getting involved in politics.

Max Cleland

Cleland had been elected Secretary of State in Georgia, no doubt at least in part out of gratitude for the sacrifice he made in Vietnam. Cleland lost both legs and an arm in combat. That was enough to propel him ahead of his Republican opponent in the very close Senate race in 1996.

In 2002, Cleland's defeat was the surprise upset of that election in the Senate. His defeat helped Republicans to gain a one-seat majority in the upper chamber of Congress.

The victor was then Congressman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who was one of the many new faces that burst on the scene in 1994 when Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years. By all accounts Chambliss was content being a Member of the House. However, Democrats, who controlled both houses of the state legislature and the Governorship, redistricted the state in expectations that they would gain at least four seats in the House. In that process they threw Chambliss into the same district as one of his GOP colleagues. Rather than going against a fellow Republican in a primary, Chambliss announced that he was running for the Senate against Cleland.

Almost no one gave him a chance to win. Chambliss knew one thing about Georgia. He knew that regardless of party, voters are very conservative on issues. He also knew that Cleland had compiled a very liberal voting record. He cancelled out the vote of the late Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) and his appointed successor Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga), the most conservative Democrat in the Senate.

Chambliss began an unrelenting campaign of ten-second radio and television spots asking Cleland why he voted for some liberal idea or why he voted to cancel out Miller hundreds of times. Right at the end of the Congressional session, the Homeland Security bill came up. The Democrats who controlled the Senate were against the version President Bush put forth, claiming it gave the President too much power to fire employees. Cleland dutifully followed his liberal leadership and voted against Homeland Security. Immediately the Senatorial Campaign Committee ran another in the series of 10-second ads asking why Cleland had voted against Homeland Security and visually depicted several of America's recognizable enemies. Cleland went bananas. Democrats screamed to high heaven. Miller, who had supported the President's version of Homeland Security, came to Cleland's defense. Still, the charge stuck because it was against the backdrop of months of other ads suggesting that Cleland was a liberal very unlike Sam Nunn or Coverdell or Miller. Georgia had not had a liberal Senator in anyone's memory.

The election would have been closer but in all likelihood, Chambliss would have won without that final ad. The Republican National Committee went full tilt in Georgia with its 72-hour voter ID and turnout operation.

Democrats in the Senate could not believe that Cleland had been defeated. They, as well as Cleland, believed that his Purple Hearts gave him license to vote as he pleased. They assumed that no one would possibly believe that Cleland was soft on national defense.

In the end Chambliss won by a very comfortable margin (final official Georgia election results show Chambliss with 53% and Cleland with 46%). His campaign was brilliant because it spoke to the average guy and asked why Cleland voted, for example, to allow homosexuals to be Boy Scout leaders. Republicans elsewhere would not use issues like that. When liberals screamed that his issues were unfair, Chambliss never backed off.

So now eight months later, Cleland is still bitter and some Democrats are saying that Chambliss' victory was not legitimate, and in any case they will never forgive him for defeating Cleland. Democrats want nothing to do with him; all of them except Zell Miller. Despite his putting himself on the line for Cleland, Miller was very gracious about the results and he and Chambliss are working together on numerous Georgia projects.

What makes Cleland and the ultra-liberals in the Senate so angry is that for once they couldn't have it both ways. I have long contended that if the average voters really knew what many of their Senators vote for, there would be almost none of them left in the Congress.

Max Cleland deserved and continues to deserve our tremendous gratitude for what he did in Vietnam, and especially for not feeling sorry for himself afterwards. He was a wonderful example to young people of that generation who badly needed one. Serving in the Senate is an entirely different matter. He was a very liberal Senator serving a very conservative state. He deserved to lose. The good former Senator should show the sort of mettle he demonstrated post Vietnam to his American University students. He should quit whining (although that is what liberals do best these days) and acknowledge that he was privileged to serve six years in the U.S. Senate and the fact he was out of step with his constituents cost him re-election. Instead of slurs against the character of Chambliss and the endless pity party to which he feels he is entitled, Cleland should be a big man and explain to the AU students what a wonderful system of government and yes, even politics we have in the good old USA.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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