Ballot Box

The Flip-Flops of Joseph Lieberman

What he said then. What he says now. What happened.

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, worldviews, best moments, and worst moments. This series assesses the candidates’ purported flip-flops. Here are two switches commonly attributed to Joe Lieberman—and the context his critics leave out.

Flip: On July 19, 1995, Lieberman said on the Senate floor, “Affirmative action is dividing us in ways its creators could never have intended because most Americans who do support equal opportunity, and are not biased, do not think it is fair to discriminate against some Americans as a way to make up for historic discrimination against other Americans.”

Flop: Soon after Al Gore selected him as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in August 2000, Lieberman told the Democratic National Committee, “The time has come to tear down the remaining walls of discrimination in this nation based on race, gender, nationality or sexual orientation … and that’s why I continue to say, when it comes to affirmative action, mend it but please, don’t end it.”

Context: On Meet the Press in January 2003, Lieberman condemned President Bush’s criticisms of the University of Michigan’s undergraduate admission system, which gave students the same number of points for being minorities as for getting perfect SAT scores. He insisted that his opposition to affirmative action in 1995 revolved around concerns that it had regressed into a quota system. However, in 1995 Lieberman called racial preferences “patently unfair.” In the aforementioned Senate floor statement, he indicated that he thought most preference policies would not pass a constitutional test and that affirmative action was no longer a very effective way of eliminating racism.

Flip: In 1992, Lieberman voted to preserve an amendment that would prohibit the District of Columbia from using money to extend health insurance benefits to “domestic partners” of D.C. employees. The amendment’s sponsor, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said the district’s domestic partnership law “legitimizes homosexual and lesbian couples living together.” In 1996, Lieberman voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred the federal government from extending Social Security or other benefits to same-sex partners.

Flop: According to the Washington Post, on March 31, 2003, Lieberman pointed to “his strong support for gay rights, promising to work for legislation to extend to domestic partners of all federal employees the same benefits provided spouses of their colleagues.”

Context: In his debate with Dick Cheney in October 2000, Lieberman said the question of legal rights for gay partners “challenges the traditional notion of marriage as being limited to a heterosexual couple, which I support. But I must say, I’m thinking about this because I have friends who are in gay and lesbian partnerships who have said to me, ‘Isn’t it unfair that we don’t have similar legal rights to inheritance, to visitation when one of the partners is ill, to health care benefits?’ And that’s why I’m thinking about it. And my mind is open to taking some action that will address those elements of unfairness while respecting the traditional religious and civil institution of marriage.”

The legislation Lieberman promised to support in 2003 was introduced in 2002 by two Democratic senators. According to the Connecticut Post, the sponsors “introduced their bill on Aug. 1, 2002. Five other Democratic senators co-sponsored the legislation but Lieberman was not among them. The bill was referred to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, where Lieberman was chairman, but that committee never voted on it.” One of the bill’s co-sponsors was John Kerry.

Though his position on domestic partnerships has shifted, Lieberman has long supported banning job discrimination against gays and lesbians. He introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act with Sens. Ted Kennedy and James Jeffords in 1996 as an amendment to the Defense of Marriage Act. The amendment failed, 50 to 49.