Back In The Box: From The Lieberman Lurch To The Kerry Cartwheel

Rituals play an important, even quasi-religious role in our public life. They bind past and present, reassuring us by their familiar symbols of continuity that some things never change.

Take, for example, the “Long Live Affirmative Action!” oath that is required every four years of all Democratic nominees. (“No,” to paraphrase comedian Henny Youngman, “you take it.”) Four years ago, writing at, Jacob Sullum described that year’s AA ritual as “the Lieberman lurch.”

Before being picked as Al Gore’s running mate, Joe Lieberman had a reputation for independence and integrity, a reputation that been honed over the years by his willingness to wander off the Democratic reservation and defend principles that were not popular with his party’s base. Prominent among these was his well-known and often-articulated objections to racial preferences. As Sullum wrote:

In a 1995 speech, for instance, Lieberman declared: “Affirmative action is dividing us in ways its creators could never have intended. … 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.”

That same year, he said, “You can’t defend policies that are based on group preferences as opposed to individual opportunities, which is what America has always been about. … Not only should you not discriminate against somebody, but you shouldn’t discriminate in favor of somebody.”

Asked if he supported California’s Proposition 209, which banned racial preferences by the state government, Lieberman said, “I can’t see how I can be opposed to it.”

But he saw quickly enough when, immediately after his selection by Gore, these and similar statements produced grumbling in the ranks. Lieberman recanted quicker than Superman could shed his uniform and re-assume the identity of Clark Kent. Groveling before Rep. Maxine Waters and the Black Caucus a week before the Democratic convention, Lieberman affirmed, as this particular ritual requires, that “I have supported affirmative action, I do support affirmative action, and I will support affirmative action.”

Unlike Joe Lieberman, John Kerry does not come to what may be his impending nomination carrying the burden of a long-established reputation for integrity based on his principled dissent from party orthodoxy. But as David Brooks has recently pointed out, Kerry has expressed some unorthodox (for a Democrat) thoughts from time to time.

If you look back over the span of John Kerry’s career, you find that every few months or years he takes a hard look at some thorny public issue. Then, after some period of reflection, he unleashes his inner Moynihan and comes out with an interesting and politically dangerous speech.

One thorny issue that Kerry once visited is affirmative action. Indeed, as Brooks points out:

In 1992, John Kerry took on civil-rights groups. In speeches at Yale and in Washington, he said affirmative action had achieved many positive results. But he said it was time to acknowledge the costs. Once, he said, the civil-rights movement was a “mighty battle between good and evil,” but now the “civil-rights arena is controlled by lawyers, [with] the winners and losers determined by rules most Americans neither understand nor are sympathetic with.”

Affirmative action, he argued, “has kept America thinking in racial terms.” It has helped foster a “culture of dependency.” Further, he said, “there exists a reality of reverse discrimination that actually engenders racism.”

But the ritual of atonement for past apostasy requires, of course, that these statements could not be allowed to stand, and predictably Kerry not only jumped through the required hoops but turned cartwheels at the opportunity to disavow them in the Democratic debate just held in South Carolina.

According to an article in Friday’s New York Times,

Mr. Kerry replied [to Tom Brokaw that] his remarks were being mischaracterized.

“Actually, Tom, that’s not what I said,” Mr. Kerry said. “What I described was what the critics were saying about it and about the growing questions about it.”

He added: “There were a great many questions in the country about how it was being implemented. We wanted to keep it. I’ve always supported it. In the very speech in which I raised what those perceptions were, I said at the beginning, ‘I support affirmative action.’ I said at the end, ‘I support affirmative action.’ ”

Today, Mr. Kerry continued his defense of his record on affirmative action and said his comments 12 years ago had been misquoted and misinterpreted. In an interview on CNN after a rally here, he asserted that he had not said that affirmative action was divisive but rather that his stance had been “mend it, don’t end it.”

“I have always voted for it, I have always supported it, I’ve never ever been different,” he added

Rep. James Clyburn, a Kerry supporter who is said to be the most influential black political figure in South Carolina, echoed this point:

“The truth is that John Kerry has stood strong all his life to defend affirmative action,” Mr. Clyburn said. “John Kerry, President Clinton, myself and many other supporters of affirmative action fought together to overcome adverse judicial decisions and to ensure the survival of affirmative action.”

Since no one disputes that to its defenders “affirmative action” is the polite term for racial preferences (if AA didn’t mean preferences, most critics wouldn’t oppose it), I wonder if the claim that Kerry “always supported it … all his life” may not have gone too far. After all, all the civil rights organizations opposed making benefits or burdens turn on racial distinctions until the late 1960s.

In any event, Kerry’s cartwheel was much less jarring that Lieberman’s lurch. As David Brooks observed in his column:

The problem is that he almost never follows up. When he makes these speeches he habitually asserts that he will mount a long public crusade. But then he takes his controversial ideas, jams them into a jar and buries them in the backyard.

Or, as the Orlando Sentinel put it, in the headline of the David Brooks column that it reprinted, “Kerry thinks outside the box, then jumps back in.”


The Washington Post ran a second article on Saturday highlighting Wesley Clark’s demand that Kerry “correct” and “take responsibility” for his 1992 comments that were mildly critical of affirmative action.

Once again, Kerry is quoted as replying that those comments weren’t really his. “What I described was what the country was saying,” he claimed. “I’ve always supported it.” According to the WaPo,

Kerry’s speech at Yale University was reported at the time by the Boston Globe. The newspaper quoted the senator praising affirmative action for having “opened doors for women, persons with disabilities and countless minorities” and helping to “create a large and . . . growing black middle class.”

At the same time, Kerry said he worried about “a reality of reverse discrimination” that left white workers with “a sense of being singled out to compensate for historical sins which [they] did not commit.”

Clark, however, is sticking with his story, and he

backed up his charges with Mary Frances Berry, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who recalled reading about the Kerry speech and feeling as if “someone had kicked me in the stomach.”

“Kerry was saying exactly the same thing that opponents of affirmative action were saying,” Berry told reporters, charging that “he was simply missing in action” in the fight to preserve the programs.

Too bad he’s now returned to the base.

Say What? (8)

  1. Tung Yin January 31, 2004 at 1:42 pm | | Reply

    This is a very interesting point and one that’s a microcosm of a severe problem with political parties. Affirmative action is just one of the third rails of the Democratic party, as far as I can tell, along with Social Security, Medicare, unions, and abortion. To be evenhanded, the Republican party has its own third rails: abortion (again), gay marriage (perhaps), and no doubt others.

    At some meta-level, a political party is nothing more than a collection of ideas that signal to voters that someone belonging to the party holds a sufficient number of similar views on the ideas to merit voting for in the absence of any other information.

    But these third rail issues are becoming increasingly destructive to efforts to accomplish real changes. Your observation on Kerry’s occasional straying but ultimate fidelity to the Democratic position on AA is a good example (though maybe not, maybe it just shows that Kerry doesn’t really stand for anything). Had the Democrats been less rigid and dogmatic about AA — particularly as an end in itself, rather than an imperfect stopgap — starting 25 years ago, perhaps real reform would have started back then. Instead, the Democrats hold the line on AA, accomplish little else to help the truly impoverished minorities (who have no true equal opportunity), and pin hopes on something akin to Justice O’Connor’s rather fantastical belief that in 25 years AA will be no longer necessary.

    In the interest of being evenhanded, I think the Republicans share substantial blame for the lack of real reforms.

  2. Laura February 1, 2004 at 10:18 am | | Reply

    Tung Yin: What will real reform be like? I’m honestly asking.

  3. Tung Yin February 1, 2004 at 2:35 pm | | Reply

    This isn’t anywhere near my area of expertise, so what follows are little more than rank speculation, etc. But here’s what I think “reform” would entail:

    1) more research to determine why it is that minority groups underperform on standardized tests and other measures — is it some cultural factor? is it that teachers have lower expectations, which in turn gets transmitted to minority students? [It could well be that AA itself creates a crutch, which decreases the incentives for minority students to apply themselves.]

    2) improvement of the general public school system. This isn’t just a money issue, since DC spends more than any other district (I think) and has poor results; but delinking school district revenue from property taxes may be a necessary start. More likely, merit pay for teachers would be a good idea.

    3) Addressing the crime-poverty syndrome. Obviously, for affluent minorities, this isn’t as much of an issue, but for ones who live in the urban centers, surviving to age 18 may be of more immediate concern than getting good grades.

    Anyway, I don’t pretend to have any certain answers about what needs to be done. I do think, however, that regardless of whether AA sticks around or not, someone should be thinking about these underlying issues and how to solve them.

  4. Laura February 2, 2004 at 7:36 pm | | Reply

    I think your points 2 and 3 are the focus of lots of mental energy right now. Even before NCLB, there was a lot of emphasis on improving public education in my state.

    The reason point 1 won’t fly is that too many people are afraid that the “Bell Curve” scenario will play out and black people will be found to just test lower as a group, period. And it actually might, but that doesn’t mean that every individual child shouldn’t get a crack at a decent education. The average group score doesn’t imply anything about the score of an individual. Also, if it turns out to be the AA crutch, which it easily might, that will be a political hot potato too.

  5. Anonymous February 3, 2004 at 4:15 am | | Reply

    Berry and Kerry and Clark: talk about people that deserve each other…

  6. tiffany October 26, 2004 at 11:58 am | | Reply

    I think affirmative action should stand because without it ther would be no good debates. Affimatvie action is w

  7. […] who are willing to oppose preferential treatment based on race. Mr. Biden no doubt remembers the “Lieberman lurch,” when, in order to be placed on the presidential ticket with Al Gore, Sen. Joe Lieberman had to […]

Say What?