Political Hay

Misperception Correction

Looking at the record on John Heinz and Max Cleland.

By 8.3.04

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If you listen to talk radio on a regular basis, you'll notice a chorus of complaints on a single theme. How can the widow Teresa Heinz Kerry use the fortune she inherited from Republican Senator John Heinz to aid the liberal John Kerry's presidential campaign? Furthermore, how can John Heinz's sons so blithely lend their support to a man of the left like Kerry? The complaints assume that Senator Heinz was a conservative or even a right-of-center moderate. Neither was the case.

John Heinz was the first man in his family to choose public service over a place at the helm of the business. It was his conviction that most of the really important decisions about our lives were being made in the public sector. Summing up his first 100 days in office, then Congressman Heinz remarked, "I have attempted to wear no label, neither 'liberal' nor 'conservative' nor 'pro-labor' nor 'pro-management.'

The convictions and language didn't exactly echo conservative sentiments. The private enterprise that generates wealth and opportunity was given less priority than the public sector, which conservatives often view as a necessary evil. Instead of running with a conservative message, Heinz aspired to be one of the enlightened moderates, which usually means a leftist with a slightly tighter rein on the pocketbook and a not totally useless view of national defense. His "no label" rhetoric was made popular by former New York mayor John Lindsay, whose Republican Party designation was so ill-justified it famously prompted Bill Buckley's run for city hall as the Conservative Party's candidate.

Another good indicator of John Heinz's ideological leanings can be found in his decision to work for William Scranton's presidential campaign in 1964. When Nelson Rockefeller appeared incapable of mounting a challenge to conservative standard-bearer Barry Goldwater, Scranton threw his hat in the ring. Although Scranton failed, he joined Rockefeller in viciously painting Goldwater as a racist, nuclear button-pressing extremist. The result was that Goldwater became the first modern conservative to win the GOP nomination, but limped into the general election race hobbled by attacks from the limousine liberals of his own party.

The best proof of John Heinz's political position can be illustrated by reviewing his ratings from the American Conservative Union (ACU) during his career in the U.S. Senate. On ACU's scale, a grade of 100 indicates perfect allegiance to a traditional, conservative agenda. A grade of zero shows alignment with a modern day, McGovernite sensibility. John Heinz's lifetime rating from ACU was 40.1. In 1982, John Heinz registered a 17. That's practically Kerry territory. It doesn't touch the JFK wannabe's lifetime rating of 5, but it's in the neighborhood.

Polyglot Teresa's transition from Heinz to Kerry was almost eerily in tune with the change in American politics. Despite his huge loss in 1964, Barry Goldwater did get the last laugh as the Republican Party morphed into his image. The result was that the Grand Old Party slipped out of the hands of Heinzs' and Rockefellers' fulfilling their own notions of noblesse oblige. If the cost of clarity is that some old money makes a party switch, we can easily afford it.

Spinning 2002 to the Max

On the other side of the aisle, the Democrats desperately need a reality check on the real reasons for the political demise of former U.S. Senator from Georgia, Max Cleland. The Dems have spent a lot of time recalling the mythical injustice of their loss in Florida, but running only slightly behind on their list of grievances is the supposedly scurrilous maltreatment of the one term, triple amputee Cleland. Their story is that Republican Saxby Chambliss shamelessly questioned Cleland's patriotism and scooted into the Senate as a stronger supporter of national security. The reality is far different. Democrats don't want to hear it because it doesn't match the dark legend of oppression they've brewed since losing seats in 2002.

Max Cleland's lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union was an anemic 16. Given the difficulty of running on an unquestionably liberal record in a state that went for Bush in 2000 by a very comfortable margin, Cleland was viewed as vulnerable from the beginning. Wyche Fowler, who set the standard for Cleland as a Georgia Senator who followed the liberal line, had already highlighted the weakness of liberals in Georgia when he was booted in 1992, despite that being a very good year for Democrats. His ACU rating sometimes dipped into the single digits.

It's true that Cleland hurt himself by opposing President Bush's Homeland Security bill, but the real deal-breaker was his support for all abortions all the time. Cleland voted against banning partial birth abortions and was singularly unreceptive to the vigorous Georgia pro-life community. When cloning was on the table in D.C., Cleland refused to meet with popular Christian speaker, pro-life activist, and quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada to hear her views. Chambliss's campaign shrewdly publicized Cleland's support for partial birth abortion, while an informal network in Georgia spread word of his snub of Ms. Tada. In short, he couldn't have chosen a better way to mobilize religious voters against him. Even members of churches who normally disavow politics as dirty felt obliged to visit the polls and register their disapproval.

The reality of the situation is that painting Max Cleland as a martyr for standing up to the President on homeland security fits the story the Democrats want to tell about George W. Bush and John Ashcroft. Nobody who really understands Georgia politics is foolish enough to think that Cleland's oddball status as a reliable liberal vote in the Senate and his consistent support for abortion rights weren't the real reasons for his demise. Political handicappers had been waiting for years for Georgia to finally become a Republican state as conservative Democrats quit or died off. In 2002, it happened and Max Cleland got caught in the perfect storm.

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About the Author

Hunter Baker is associate dean of arts and sciences and associate professor of political science at Union University. He is the author of The End of Secularism and winner of the 2011 Michael Novak Award. His personal website is www.hunterbaker.wordpress.com.