(22) Preferences 2000: Bush, Gore, Lieberman
Analysis 08/09/00
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Preferences 2000:   Bush, Gore, Lieberman (08/09/00)

News Analysis: August 9, 2000 -- by Thomas E.  Wood, Moderator, AADAP.ORG

          Since the fate of racial preferences hangs in the balance in this year's Presidential election, the big news in the last two days has been Al Gore's selection of Joe Lieberman as his running mate, and questions that it raises about the potential impact on the outcome of the presidential campaign and on the way racial issues may figure in it. 

          The New York Post today cites the opposing views of David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and Harlem Democrat and New York City Councilman Bill Perkins on the impact that Gore's choice will have on black turnout in the election, given that Lieberman is an Orthodox Jew. Yesterday, a column by Stephen Hayes in the National Review Online raised a similar question about Lieberman's statements in the past criticizing racial preferences. (Hayes' article also quoted Ward Connerly, who said that he would not be suprised if having Lieberman on the ticket depressed the turnout of the core Democratic base as much as 10 percent. )

          While Lieberman would clearly not have been the civil rights lobby's first choice, my prediction is that the Gore campaign will have little difficulty finessing the affirmative action issue. Indeed, this already seems to be happening, since Jackson, Sharpton, and others have already announced their strong support of the ticket.  

          It is true that some years ago Lieberman criticized "affirmative action" (meaning "preferences").  As reported in yesterday's New York Times, Lieberman said in 1995 in a speech 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 don't think it is fair to discriminate against some Americans as a way to make up for historic discrimination against other Americans.  For after all, if you discriminate in favor of one group on the basis of race, you thereby discriminate against another group on the basis of race." And even more strikingly (as reported in today's Philadelphia Inquirer), Lieberman defended Prop 209: "I can't see how I could be opposed to it.  It basically is a statement of American values.  It takes the language and the values underlying the civil rights acts that Congress has passed and says not only should we not discriminate against somebody, we shouldn't discriminate in favor of somebody based on the group they represent."

          The principal problem the Bush campaign will have in getting much mileage out of these statements is that Lieberman appears to have changed his position on affirmative action, at least to judge from his voting record in the Senate, where in virtually every case he has voted to continue preferences in federal programs. A fairly typical example is his vote on March 6, 1998, when he voted to table the proposal to end minority set-asides in the federal highway program. 

          To date, Gore's campaign has not been verycompetent (particularly compared to Bush's, which has been stellar), but even so, it is hard to believe that Gore and Lieberman failed to reach agreement on the line they would take on affirmative action during the vetting process. And in fact, given Lieberman's voting record, Democrats are well-positioned to turn lemons into lemonade, and hail Lieberman as a prodigal son, who flirted with heresy some years back, but who eventually came to see, like Glenn Loury and others, the necessity and value of "affirmative action."

          In any case, the line between the two parties should be sufficiently clear on election day for the purposes of the racial activitists.  If Jackson and others fail to get out a large black turnout for Gore on election day, it will not, in all likelihood, be because of Lieberman. The selection of Lieberman does nothing to change the fundamental issues, so far as these activists are concerned. As Jackson said yesterday, in effect, the bottom line is that the Democratic Party supports "affirmative action" (meaning preferences), and that the Republican Party does not.  

          Jackson's assessment is supported, not only by the party platforms and public statements of the candidates, but also by their political records. Thus, there is nothing in George W. 's record as governor to parallel Lieberman's recent voting record in the Senate supporting racial preferences in federal programs. True, Bush signed omnibus bills that included preferential programs, but in these cases Bush can argue that as a governor without a line-item veto he cannot pick and choose. (In this respect, his position is rather different from his brother's, for Jeb Bush crafted the One Florida plan himself, and that plan does include preferences in university scholarships and in some aspects of the state contracting program--although generally One Florida does prohibit preferences. )Bush has even declared: "If I am President of the United States, I will eliminate racial preferences and quotas."We can assume that Jackson and others will take him at his word, and do everything they can to keep the White House in the hands of the Democratic Party. 

          Though Gore's selection of Lieberman does nothing to change the overall significance of the election for the issue of racial preferences, it may make the race more competitive by helping to improve Gore's prospects with moderate swing-voters, who may be more inclined now to see him as a moderate on the issue. If the Gore campaign plays its cards right, this could have a greater impact on the election than any dampening of black turnout on election day. 

          In my view, the most incisive commentaries in the last several days have emphasized this point. Orlando Patterson in the New York Times argued on August 6 that the Democrats are identified by voters with an identity politics on racial issues that they resoundingly reject, and that this is an important factor in the boost that Republicans are getting from their own minority outreach efforts, to which voters respond more favorably. Richard Cohen makes a very similar point in today's Washington Post. And as Michael Kelly says in his column in the Washington Post today: "The New Democratic Party is not the party of Nader, but the party of the Democratic Leadership Council and its chairman, Joe Lieberman.  And this is the only Democratic Party that has proved it can elect a president." 

          With the exception of the Confederate flag controversy in South Carolina and the ill-advised visit to Bob Jones University, Bush has handled racial issues very adroitly. As a result, Gore cannot hope to make gains among women voters and other key swing voters by depicting Bush as a dangerous "racial extremist." In selecting Lieberman, therefore, Gore has decided to run as a New Democrat, a centrist, and a moderate, while using the very real differences between the two parties on affirmative action to mobilize minority turnout, especially among blacks. The Gore campaign is likely now to turn into a rerun of the Clinton-Carville "It's the economy, stupid" campaign of 1992. The economy is in fact the one strong card Gore has to play, and in selecting Lieberman, he has decided to put this kind of issue right, front, and center. Nevertheless, the enormous legal and public policy implications of this election on the nation's racial issues remain unchanged. 

About the author:  Thomas E. Wood is co-author of California's historic Proposition 209.  He also moderates the web site http://www.aadap.org which covers news regarding racial and gender preferences.

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