WASHINGTON -- "A funny thing happened to me on the way to the state AFL-CIO convention today," an elated Sen. Joseph Lieberman told the Connecticut labor gathering in Hartford Monday morning. He meant his selection as Democratic vice-presidential nominee, but what was really "funny" was revealed a few moments later.
Embedded in a stock political speech, Lieberman's 180-degree turn on Social Security was hardly noticed. He flipped from New Democrat privatization to Al Gore's standpat posture. How could he have changed his mind so quickly? He didn't. Two months ago when Vice President Gore began considering Lieberman as his running mate, Gore aides asked the senator to write out his revised views. He did.
That fits the real Joe Lieberman. He is one of the best-liked personalities in American politics. But while talking the moderate talk, he walks the liberal walk. The news media description this week of a centrist, moderate or even conservative misrepresented a party regular who more often than not is a conventional liberal.
Republican spin-doctors were also fooled, claiming that Lieberman agrees more with George W. Bush than Al Gore and citing Social Security as exhibit No. 1. They assumed Lieberman was sticking with Democratic Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Bob Kerrey and John Breaux in urging a reform much like Gov. Bush's.
In an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune published April 18, 1998, Lieberman said: "A remarkable wave of innovative thinking is advancing the concept of privatization, some personalization of retirement plans." Such a plan, he added, can "give people more confidence about what their retirement years will be like." His prediction: "I think in the end that individual control of part of the retirement/Social Security funds has got to happen."
Happy Republican researchers perceived Gore debating his running mate. But they neglected Lieberman's speech at the Connecticut AFL-CIO convention, which was pure Gore: "Look at what Gov. Bush is proposing. Instead of saving Social Security, he's on a course to savage it with a privatization scheme that would take $1 trillion out of the nest that belongs to every worker in America."
Was that a brilliant improvisation? Not quite. In June, the Gore campaign prudently asked Lieberman to prepare an "op-ed column" on Social Security. "My Private Journey Away from Privatization" attacked "an expensive experiment" and endorsed Gore's plan. It actually appeared in no newspapers, but was filed at Gore headquarters for future distribution -- which came this week.
This Social Security swing is familiar for Lieberman. His famous Senate speech attacking Bill Clinton's personal morals deflected attention from impeachment to a censure of doubtful constitutional validity. Lieberman was silent thereafter, and when the issue reached the Senate floor, he not only voted to acquit President Clinton; in lock step with other Democratic senators (except the courageous Russell Feingold of Wisconsin), he voted with the White House against calling witnesses in the impeachment trial.
Noting that Lieberman's comments on educational reform were similar to Republican policy, he was approached a few months ago by Sens. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Slade Gorton of Washington in behalf of the Republican leadership. They wanted Lieberman to join a bipartisan school reform plan. He soon made clear his lack of interest in attaching his name to any Republican bill.
While Lieberman's comments occasionally infuriate the National Education Association, the teachers union rated his 1999 voting record at 90 percent. That compares with a 100 percent report card by the National Abortion Rights Action League and 95 percent by the Americans for Democratic Action last year. In comparison, Lieberman's record was 2 percent by the National Right to Life Committee, zero by the National Taxpayers Union and zero by the American Conservative Union.
Gore ended up with a two-way choice between Lieberman and freshman Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a multi-millionaire trial lawyer who was trying personal injury cases two years ago. Gore aides lobbied hard for the younger, charismatic Edwards, but Gore was savvy enough to see there was no real choice. In Joe Lieberman, he picked a vice president acclaimed as an independent in the center but who in fact usually is a safe party man, as he vividly demonstrated Monday on Social Security.