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As Long as We Remember...

December 16, 2005

A Signal of Success or Panic?

Tony Soltero

Max Cleland was a Vietnam War hero. While serving during that conflict, he earned the Bronze Star and the Silver Star, and came back to America leaving both of his legs and part of one arm behind. He entered politics, and served as a state legislator and as secretary of state in Georgia, eventually winning election as a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 1996.

Senator Cleland was bounced from the Senate in 2002 after one of the filthiest political campaigns in the nation's recent history. His Republican opponent was Saxby Chambliss, an individual who never whiffed military service, citing a "bad knee" which apparently got much healthier once he got beyond draft age.

Despite this, Senator Chambliss' campaign had the temerity to impugn Cleland's patriotism and run TV spots associating the Vietnam War hero and disabled veteran with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The ads were so disgusting that even several Republican senators (notably Chuck Hagel of Nebraska) publicly assailed them.

The Republicans, unable – as usual – to run on actual issues, mounted a vicious smear campaign against a proud and honorable veteran, a man with more character and courage in his little finger than the entire Georgia Republican Party. Unfortunately, the state of Georgia ranks close to the bottom in educational achievement, and enough gullible voters swallowed up the false propaganda to vote out Senator Cleland.

One of the main consultants for the Chambliss campaign was one Bo Harmon, who helped coordinate the sleazy mudslinging. One might give him credit for helping Senator Chambliss win the election, the same way one might give a pornography producer credit for making money. Certainly his "success" was noted by other Republicans in the nation.

Well, guess who has hired Mr. Harmon? Our own estimable and embattled Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, that’s who. And I thought our governor was going to run for re-election on his many illustrious accomplishments in Annapolis. Silly me.

Mr. Harmon's hiring is an admission by the Ehrlich camp that the incumbent governor has very little in his record that he can cite as a success story. He's essentially been a one-trick pony, revolving his administration around the supposed economic panacea of slot machines. (Yes, Frederick can be the next Tunica, MS!)

He's run into a brick wall of opposition in the reality-based state legislature, and since then he's resorted to chronic whining in the media about not getting his way, melodramatically pouting at the coverage some reporters have given him, and spitefully trying to purge anyone in the state government who declines to kneel upon a carpet and bow towards the Republican Party headquarters five times a day.

So it appears that he's decided to go negative; not that he hasn't already planted the seeds for such an approach, as one of his aides (now allegedly departed) has already been busy spreading rumors about Martin O'Malley's personal life.

But the hiring of Mr. Harmon makes it a little more obvious. Well, a lot more obvious. Banner-behind-a-plane-over-the-Beltway-during-rush-hour obvious.

The funny thing is that perhaps one shouldn't blame Mr. Ehrlich. What's he going to say? "Vote for me! I gave your tax dollars to Wal-Mart! I prevented you from being able to make your own health-care decisions! I raised your property taxes! I hiked your kids' college tuition!" Given that track record, maybe he doesn't have any choice but to go negative.

Whatever Mr. Ehrlich's motives, it is incumbent that the Democrat gubernatorial contenders – Mayor O'Malley and Doug Duncan – be prepared for what's coming. Bob Ehrlich has just hired an operative who managed to make a large percentage of Georgians believe that a decorated war hero was a terrorist sympathizer.

While Maryland's voters, as a whole, are better-educated than Georgia's (suggesting that Mr. Harmon's smears are going to have to be more subtle for them to work), that doesn't mean he won't be up to the challenge.

Some have suggested that the real target is O'Malley's running mate, state Delegate (and Iraq vet) Anthony Brown. The Republicans certainly won't be hesitating to do what they can to try to dampen the exceptionally positive buzz generated by Mr. O'Malley's selection of Mr. Brown.

If the Democrat candidates establish effective rapid-response teams and don't allow the smear artists to drive the discussion of the candidates' merits, they should do fine. After all, Republican Jerry Kilgore ran a uniformly negative campaign in Virginia, and got his clock cleaned for his trouble.

And Maryland's a lot bluer than Virginia. But Mayor O'Malley, County Executive Duncan, and state Delegate Brown would be well advised to be ready for anything – nothing, absolutely nothing, is beyond the GOP slime machine. Ask John Kerry. Ask John McCain. Ask Max Cleland. And that's just the Vietnam veterans.

I'm sure most Maryland citizens were hoping for a civil, issues-oriented gubernatorial campaign, much like we just had in Frederick City. But it doesn't look like we're going to be getting that at the state level. Then again, if I were Bob Ehrlich, I wouldn't want to run on my record, either.

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