Ballot Box

The Gaffes of Joe Lieberman

His most embarrassing quotes, in context.

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, worldviews, best moments, worst moments, and flip-flops. This series assesses each candidate’s most embarrassing quotes, puts them in context, and explains how the candidate or his supporters defend the comments. Today’s subject is Joe Lieberman.

Quote: “If you want to get me off this idea, the best thing to do is elect the Gore-Lieberman ticket” (Washington Times, Aug. 10, 2000).

Charge: Lieberman was addressing a delegate to the 2000 Democratic National Convention who belonged to the National Education Association, which vehemently opposed school vouchers. The delegate had asked Lieberman to “put to rest our worries” about his support of vouchers. Lieberman was advising the questioner to vote for Gore so that Gore would prevent Lieberman from promoting vouchers. Critics cited this as an example of Lieberman twisting himself into a pretzel to appease the left.

Context: In 1997, Lieberman fought for legislation to implement a program in Washington, D.C., to expand school choice and use federal funds to provide scholarships to private school students. On April 17, 1997, he said of voucher critics: “There are some who dismiss suggestions of school choice programs and charter schools out of hand, direly predicting that these approaches will ‘ruin’ the public schools. The undeniable reality here is that this system is already in ruins, and to blindly reject new models and refuse to try new ideas is simply foolish.” In 1998, when President Clinton vetoed a bill that would create a private school savings account for parents, Lieberman gathered almost enough Senate support to override the veto.

In his answer to the voucher question in August 2000, Lieberman reiterated that he disagreed with Gore. But he added, “When President Gore decides, Vice President Lieberman will support him entirely.” Gore chimed in, “I’m not afraid to have a vice president who disagrees with me on some issues.”

Defense: By November 1999, Lieberman was softening his position on school choice. He proposed an education bill that would simplify federal education aid to the states (there were hundreds of aid programs at the time) and grant local governments more flexibility while keeping the states accountable for test scores. Instead of vouchers, a larger proportion of federal money would be given to poorer areas. Lieberman said it was an alternative to Democratic overspending or “a Republican agenda of more block grants and vouchers.” In 2001, Lieberman posted on his Senate Web site a “New Democrat Approach to Education Reform” that included “expanding choices for parents and injecting more competition into our public school framework” but opposed “using public money to pay for private school tuition.” The document said, “[W]e are particularly troubled by the massive voucher program President Bush is advocating.”