- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2000

Sen. Joe Lieberman's reputation for independence and principle was vastly diminished last week when he backed away from two of his most prominent conservative positions to avoid public disagreement with Al Gore.

Moving quickly to revise his right-of-center policy positions to conform to Mr. Gore's more liberal agenda, the Connecticut Democrat now says he no longer supports Social Security investment retirement accounts and is abandoning school-choice vouchers.

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 put a tiny part of their Social Security payroll taxes into their own investment accounts to build a more comfortable retirement.

Now he is telling Democrats that he no longer actively supports either of these ideas that are an integral part of George W. Bush's reform agenda.

Why the sudden switch? Al Gore and the powerful special interests who support him bitterly oppose both ideas.

Mr. Lieberman has often spoken eloquently about establishing investment retirement accounts, an idea that polls show is supported by a majority in his own party.

"I think in the end that individual control of part of these retirement Social Security funds has got to happen," he said back in 1998 and has repeated ever since.

But now, in an unpublished article that mysteriously began circulating last week, he says he is against this reform that would significantly raise the net worth of working Americans. A similar investment pension plan is available to all of Mr. Lieberman's wealthy Senate colleagues but not to ordinary workers.

"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 said in the article he said he wrote in June but has never appeared in print. In fact, he wrote the article and filed it away at the urging of the Gore campaign when it began considering him for the No. 2 spot on the ticket.

"But ultimately I turned away from privatization because the promises and the numbers supporting them don't add up," he said.

His switch took many of his supporters by surprise, including Democrats like Sen. Daniel Moynihan of New York, who fully backs the idea.

But in another alarming flip-flop, Mr. Lieberman also changed his tune on his long-held support for school-choice vouchers.

No Democrat in the Senate has spoken with more passion about the need to break the public-school monopoly and insert some degree of competition and choice into our educational system.

"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 March 14, 1995, and has repeated every since.

Mr. Lieberman did not just talk in favor of funding school-choice vouchers, he introduced a bill to create six federally funded demonstration projects to show they would work. He voted for the proposal, which is opposed by the National Education Association, the powerful teachers union that is Mr. Gore's biggest political ally. Former Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley voted for it, too.

Now Lieberman aides say he is backpedaling from the idea as fast as he can. They point out he did not include it in his education bill earlier this year and is now willing to look at other ideas that would meet with the NEA's approval. "He's willing to look at alternative views in order to solve problems and break through impasses," said Lieberman spokesman Leslie Phillips.

Making the rounds of the TV shows with Mr. Gore by his side last week, the senator played down vouchers. "The voucher idea was a test" that he is no longer committed to, he said. Mr. Gore quickly added that he, not Mr. Lieberman, would make education policy. "The policy will be the policy I decide," the vice president said emphatically.

It was a disappointing and unprincipled retreat for Mr. Lieberman, who had a reputation for taking on the liberal orthodoxy of his party and considering market-oriented solutions to help working-class Americans.

School vouchers are becoming increasingly popular among Democratic constituencies. In Milwaukee's inner city, for example, most Democratic elected officials now support the school-voucher program. Polls in Atlanta and elsewhere show strong support for the idea among black parents whose kids are getting a lousy education and have nowhere to turn.

These inner-city minority parents only want the same freedom Joe Lieberman has for his kids, who have been educated in private schools. His youngest daughter is now attending a private Jewish school here. Poor black parents in Washington and elsewhere do not have the same options he does.

How sad. Mr. Lieberman had bravely challenged his party's stifling statism and championed giving all Americans more freedom to climb the economic ladder through investment retirement accounts and school vouchers. But now, as Al Gore's running mate, he is putting politics ahead of policy.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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