The Cleland Factor

Slate’s Michael Crowley takes the Dems to task for their shameless parading of former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland (a willing participant):

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.

Shame shame shame.