- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2000

Joseph I. Lieberman is abandoning two of his most prominent conservative positions in order to conform to Al Gore's more liberal agenda for their presidential campaign.

Mr. Lieberman has for several years been a strong supporter of school-choice vouchers to help inner-city students escape from failing public schools. He has also been an enthusiastic backer of letting workers divert some of their Social Security payroll taxes into their own private investment accounts to build a more comfortable retirement.

Now, however, he is telling Democrats that he no longer supports either of these ideas.

When a Lieberman adviser was asked yesterday if he still embraces these two conservative proposals, the adviser said, "Not anymore."

The two-term Connecticut senator, picked by Mr. Gore to be his running mate, has spoken favorably about allowing partial privatization of Social Security to let workers get a higher return on their retirement savings. "I think in the end that individual control of part of these retirement Social Security funds has got to happen," he said in an interview on April 19, 1998.

But now, in an unpublished article that mysteriously began circulating this week, Mr. Lieberman says he is flatly opposed to the idea that is a central feature in George W. Bush's campaign agenda.

"At the outset, I was attracted by privatization proposals that seemed to promise taxpayers more control over their Social Security, high returns on their contributions, and more income for their retirement," Mr. Lieberman observed in the article that he said he wrote in June.

"But ultimately I turned away from privatization because the promises and the numbers supporting them don't add up, and more importantly, they don't add on to the security of Social Security," he said.

Mr. Gore is unalterably opposed to the retirement accounts idea that is supported by several Democrats, including Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Charles S. Robb of Virginia.

Mr. Lieberman's new position was largely unknown until this past week, when he was being prominently mentioned as a possible contender for vice president. Democratic sources said that is when the senator's unpublished article began to be circulated in the news media and to selected Democrats.

The Connecticut Democrat also appears to be changing his tune on his long-held position on experimenting with school-choice vouchers through a government-funded pilot program, according to Democratic policy strategists.

"There are too many ways in which the public school system has failed to deliver adequately for our kids. It's failed to keep up with the times; it's failed to innovate," he said on March 14, 1995 and numerous times since then.

Now, Mr. Lieberman's aides say that the senator, who introduced a bill that would create six school-choice demonstration projects, has quietly dropped the idea. "He offered a bipartisan education bill in May and that bill did not have anything about vouchers in it," said a Lieberman aide.

"What I've heard is that he is now saying we ought to expand charter schools and not pursue voucher programs," said Roger Hickey, the co-director of Campaign for America's Future, a liberal public policy group based here.

"I don't think he'd be my first choice [for a running mate] because until recently he seemed to disagree with Al Gore on a number of issues like Social Security and vouchers," Mr. Hickey said. "But now I'm open to those who see the light."

Mr. Gore is staunchly opposed to school vouchers, an idea that Mr. Bush also wants to encourage by diverting some federal aid to failing school districts to let parents use the money to send their children to better private or public schools.

Meantime, there was little if any evidence that the Democratic Party's base constituencies were bothered by Mr. Lieberman's earlier centrist views on these and other issues even when the senator held a position they strongly opposed.

The National Education Association, the powerful teachers union, said that while it had not agreed with Mr. Lieberman on school vouchers, "Gore would set education policy if he becomes president," an official said.

"We've looked at his voting record and Mr. Lieberman supports a lot of our issues, including school modernization, education funding and family and medical leave," said NEA spokesman Kathleen Lyons.

"[Mr. Lieberman] has voted for school vouchers, but we're encouraged that Al Gore has an unwavering position against school vouchers," she said. "As head of the ticket, that's certainly where they'll campaign."

Mr. Lieberman has four children, three of whom have finished their secondary education, but a spokesman for the senator said yesterday that the youngest daughter is attending a private Jewish school here.

The NEA recently completed its rating index on votes cast in the current Congress and it gave Mr. Lieberman a strong 90 percent score, Ms. Lyons said.

The NAACP has issued no public position on Mr. Gore's decision to pick the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, but state and local NAACP officials said yesterday that Mr. Lieberman was a strong supporter of their issues.

Even though Mr. Lieberman opposes affirmative action and says he does not like "group preferences," the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in his state still gave him a 90 percent score on his voting record.

"We don't expect everyone to agree with us on all the issues," said Lisa Scails, spokesman for the Connecticut NAACP.

The senator won election to a second term in 1994 with 67 percent of the vote, including the overwhelming support of black voters.

Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington NAACP office, said that despite Mr. Lieberman's remarks on group preferences "he has voted to support affirmative action programs" throughout the '90s.

"In the 106th Congress, we gave him a 100 percent rating for his votes in the Senate," said Mr. Shelton.

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