Joe Lieberman and the Melting Pot

The heavy media coverage surrounding Sen. Joe Lieberman’s Vice Presidential selection has mostly focused on his status as America’s first Jewish major party running mate and his Orthodox faith. But his position on assimilationist issues also deserves significant notice.

The press has already mentioned Lieberman’s long record of opposition to affirmative action programs, and this has provoked fire from some black activists. Today’s Los Angeles Times carried the front-page story below, pointing out that Lieberman had also just recently sponsored federal legislation designed to redirect federal funding away from native language (“bilingual ed”) programs toward those which rapidly teach English.

It is difficult to judge whether Republicans who take those same positions are sincere and committed. Since votes or rhetoric against affirmative action and bilingual education are popular with the conservative base of that party, they are often motivated more by cheap opportunism than belief, and—as we are currently witnessing—quickly abandoned once the political tide turns. For example, within about a one year period, ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich shifted from near-xenophobic demands for an English-only America to equally strong demands that Spanish-only Puerto Rico be immediately admitted as our 51st state.

By contrast, when a Democratic Senator from a liberal Northeastern state is willing to oppose the ethnic activist base of his own party on such matters, the sincerity of his views cannot be doubted. Those views likely derive from Lieberman’s personal roots in the Jewish immigrant community, and his wife’s own foreign birth.

Ironically, although Sen. Lieberman’s assimilationist positions may today be overwhelmingly unpopular among liberal Democratic activists, Jewish or otherwise, they are nonetheless overwhelmingly popular among ordinary liberals and Democrats, Jewish or otherwise.

In late 1998, a nationwide Zogby poll of 2000 likely voters asked their position on proposed legislation “which would require that all public school instruction be conducted in English and that students not fluent in English be placed in an intensive one-year English immersion program.” Support was overwhelming across all groups: Democrats, 72-22; Easterners, 79-18; Liberals, 64-33; Very Liberals, 67-25; Latinos, 64-30; and Jews, 88-12. Sen. Joe Lieberman is clearly on the right side of this gigantic popular majority, while Gov. George W. Bush is on the wrong one.

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