The Lieberman Lurch


Joe Lieberman's integrity did not last long. Barely a week after he was picked for the Democratic ticket, the Connecticut senator had renounced most of the positions that made him an interesting choice. By the time you read this, he may have given up the rest.

First to go was Social Security reform. In 1998 Lieberman said, "A remarkable wave of innovative thinking is advancing the concept of privatization. I think in the end that individual control of part of the retirement Social Security funds has to happen."

Now that he's teamed up with Al Gore, who condemns as a "risky scheme" what Lieberman once thought necessary and inevitable, the senator is having second thoughts. "Ultimately," he says in an unpublished op-ed piece circulated by his staff, "I turned away from privatization because the promises and the numbers supporting them don't add up."

Lieberman has also backed away from his support for school vouchers, which he once said were necessary because public schools have "failed to innovate." After voting for vouchers four times since 1992, he dropped them from his education bill last spring. Asked if Lieberman still supported the idea, an adviser told The Washington Times, "Not anymore."

These reversals were enough to start grumbling among conservatives who initially praised Lieberman as an honorable man whose positions were closer to George W. Bush's than to Gore's. In response, William Bennett, the former Republican drug czar and education secretary who has found common ground with Lieberman on cultural issues, rose to his friend's defense.

Maybe Lieberman had waffled a little on Social Security, Bennett conceded in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, but his "attempts to distance himself from his record are not egregious or particularly offensive." That is not a very high standard, especially coming from the professional moralist who wrote The Book of Virtues.

Bennett thought it "worth noting" that Lieberman "so far has stuck to his guns on several traditionally 'conservative Republican' issues" that "cut at the heart of the most powerful Democratic interest groups"–including "group preferences." As fate would have it, Bennett's piece appeared the same day newspapers reported Lieberman's abject declaration to the Democratic Convention's Black Caucus: "I have supported affirmative action, I do support affirmative action, and I will support affirmative action."

What Lieberman actually thinks about affirmative action now is hard to say, and what he will think in the future is anybody's guess. But what he used to think is a matter of public record.

In a 1995 speech, for instance, Lieberman declared: "Affirmative action is dividing us in ways its creators could never have intended….After all, if you discriminate in favor of one group on the basis of race, you thereby discriminate against another group on the basis of race."

That same year, he said, "You can't defend policies that are based on group preferences as opposed to individual opportunities, which is what America has always been about….Not only

should you not discriminate against somebody, but you shouldn't discriminate in favor of somebody."

Asked if he supported California's Proposition 209, which banned racial preferences by the state government, Lieberman said, "I can't see how I can be opposed to it." Now, apparently, he does see.

Amazingly, Bennett continued defending Lieberman even after his disgraceful performance at the convention. "Affirmative action means lots of things," he said on NBC's Today show the next morning. "It can mean casting a wide net to give everyone a chance, or it can mean assigning preferences by race."

Nice try. But in the context of Lieberman's statement, which was addressed to a group of people who understand "affirmative action" to mean racial preferences and who pronounced themselves reassured afterward, it was perfectly clear what his words signified.

Lieberman tried to explain his craven capitulation by saying that "history and current reality make [affirmative action] necessary." But the idea that past discrimination justifies current discrimination is not some new piece of information that he recently came across; it's a familiar argument that he had already considered and emphatically rejected.

Lieberman's eagerness to sacrifice his principles for political advantage does not reflect only on him. When he was tapped as Gore's running mate, Democrats and Republicans alike emphasized that he was universally admired for his honesty and integrity in Washington. His recent behavior gives you some idea of the standards that prevail there.