As Joe Lieberman's 2004 presidential campaign begins its
first big road trip today, he is already on the defensive over seemingly
conflicting views on affirmative action. And to add even more tension, he is
heading to Michigan, ground zero in that controversy. (Getty Images)...
Lieberman Denies Shift On Race Policy
January 20, 2003
By DAVID LIGHTMAN, Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- As Joe
Lieberman's 2004 presidential campaign begins its first big road trip today, he
is already on the defensive over seemingly conflicting views on affirmative
And to add even more tension, he is heading to Michigan, ground zero in that
Lieberman told a national television audience Sunday that he supports the
University of Michigan admissions system, which uses racial preferences, and
said President Bush's opposition was flatly "wrong" and
But nearly eight years ago, as Democrats struggled to keep their historic
backing of affirmative action from becoming a serious political liability and as
California considered banning preferences at state-funded institutions,
Lieberman sounded a different tone.
"You can't defend policies that are based on group preferences as opposed
to individual opportunities," he said in 1995 as he raised serious
questions about affirmative action.
Group preferences are devices used by employers, colleges and others to give
minority candidates extra credit or points when considering whether to hire or
admit them. Opponents complain that is unfair; supporters counter that the extra
help is needed because minorities often lack the same cultural and educational
advantages as whites.
Lieberman and his staff insisted Sunday that he has not changed his view. They
said many Democrats were questioning affirmative action in 1995. The Supreme
Court was considering the matter, and President Clinton was reviewing how to
deal with preferences.
Anyway, the senator contends, he was concerned about group preferences that had
become, or were in danger of becoming, quota systems.
On March 9, 1995, before an audience of national reporters, Lieberman said of
group policies: "When we have such policies, we have the effect of breaking
some of those ties in civil society that have held us together because [the
affirmative action policies] are patently unfair."
Lieberman continued: "Those who are the victims of [group preferences] and
lose out when choices are made based on group preferences as opposed to
individual ability naturally become disaffected from the process."
Asked that day about the California initiative, Lieberman said: "Looking at
the wording of the Civil Rights Initiative in California, I can't see how I
could be opposed to it," he said, "because it basically is a statement
of American values ..."
Lieberman today says that while he opposes quotas, which courts generally have
banned, he sees nothing wrong with the Michigan system, which awards extra
points to certain minority students as part of an overall admissions rating
Such a system, he said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," is "a
response to the unfortunate reality that a lot of minority students go to
schools that are under-performing, and to give them the opportunity to come up
and make it into America's middle class they need that plus factor."
Asked to square his present views with what he said regarding the California
initiative, Lieberman responded, "It was at a press conference. Reporters
read that statement [details of the California plan] to me. Frankly, I said on
the face of it, it sounds like basic American values to me. It doesn't mean the
end of affirmative action. It meant the end of quotas."
No one read him any such statement. A Scripps Howard reporter asked only:
"If you were a California resident, would you vote for [the initiative] and
will the Democratic Leadership Council have a position on it?"
Lieberman, an active DLC member since coming to Washington in 1989, said that
while he did not know the DLC view, he knew his own. "I think we all want
to say that we're against quotas," Lieberman said in March of 1995,
"and against group preferences, but there ought to be some room for the
kind of outreach that has been part of affirmative action programs without
getting into quotas."
He spoke on the Senate floor that summer after Clinton offered a "mend it,
don't end it" policy on affirmative action. "Most Americans who do not
support equal opportunity and are not biased don't think it is fair to
discriminate against some Americans in a way to make up for historic
discrimination against other Americans," Lieberman said.
An outraged Jesse Jackson went to Lieberman's Hartford office that summer.
Lieberman was out of the country, but the Rev. Jackson bent his head and prayed
for Lieberman's political soul.
Later, the senator issued a statement saying, "Many affirmative action
programs must change because they are inconsistent with the law and basic
American values of equal treatment and opportunity."
These views came back to haunt Lieberman in 2000, when Al Gore picked him as his
running mate. To defuse the controversy, Lieberman appeared at a meeting of
black delegates as the 2000 Democratic National Convention began.
"I have supported affirmative action. I do support affirmative action, and
I will support affirmative action because history and current reality make it
necessary," he told them.
Those views are the template for his 2004 positions as a presidential candidate,
views he tried to offer firmly Sunday and probably will discuss again today as
he addresses multiracial audiences in Detroit in celebration of the Martin
Luther King holiday.
But Lieberman probably will face more questions such as those posed by NBC's Tim
Russert, who wondered whether all this was political opportunism. "Not
true," Lieberman said. "This whole debate and discussion occurred in
1995, seven years ago."
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