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Lieberman Pulls Back on Religion

By David S. Broder, Washington Post,
Sunday 10 September 2000; A12

To hear Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman tell it, no one should think he is trying to inject religion into the campaign, and no big business should fear hostility from a Gore-Lieberman administration.

But in an interview Friday afternoon aboard his chartered jet between appearances in Texas and Florida, the Connecticut senator acknowledged he had heard enough concerns expressed on both subjects to give him pause.

"It was not my intention" to suggest that bringing religion more prominently into public life is the only way to overcome "the widespread public concern over declining moral values" in this nation, Lieberman said. "To me, faith can be a source--but certainly not the only source--of sound values."

As for the populist rhetoric Vice President Gore has unleashed on oil and drug companies, health maintenance organizations and insurance firms, Lieberman said, "I don't think it should have" made business apprehensive, "but I've heard some [business] people say it, so I try to assure them that a Gore administration would be pro-growth and pro-business."

The senator, who has enjoyed strong financial and political backing from insurance and defense firms in his home-state campaigns, said, "I feel very positively" about the pharmaceutical industry and its contributions to the nation's health and "see nothing inherently wrong with a big business as long as it is treating customers and workers fairly. If not, government has a right to act to protect the public interest." y Lieberman, the first Jew ever nominated on a major-party ticket, created some controversy when he offered a prayer at his first joint appearance with Gore and then delivered a pair of speeches to church groups arguing that the First Amendment "does not mean freedom from religion but freedom for religion." He was criticized by some liberal spokesmen, including the head of the Anti-Defamation League, who said he had crossed the line between church and state.

In the interview, Lieberman vigorously denied that his comments were part of a campaign strategy to blunt the "moral issue" Republicans were using in the wake of the Clinton scandals. "I said what I have been saying for 20 years," the senator said. "There was nothing in these statements that was either encouraged or cleared by what we refer to as Nashville," the site of Gore's campaign headquarters.

In fact, Lieberman said, "some people [in the campaign] were uneasy" about the comments, "but when Al and I got together on the West Coast, he was very supportive."

As for criticisms of his message, the candidate said, "I felt I was misinterpreted. It was certainly not my intention" to suggest that religion was the only strong source of values, "but I can understand how people felt that way."

Lieberman said that the line he quoted from George Washington--"never to indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion"--may have created a wrong impression but that he thought his own words showed he understood "we must be respectful of others' beliefs, be inclusive and above all, be mindful of the First Amendment. . . . The greatness of this country is that we don't impose our beliefs on others."

If Lieberman appeared to be pulling back from some of his previous statements on religion, when it came to business, he was trying to correct an impression left by Gore's populist rhetoric.

At an appearance in Arkansas last Thursday, Lieberman approvingly quoted a line from the late former senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, his Yale law school classmate: "You can't be pro-jobs and anti-business."

"I really do believe it," Lieberman said in the interview, "and I have for a long time." He said that when Democrat Ella Grasso was governor of Connecticut and he was party leader in the state Senate, they worked closely with business, adding, "And, of course, I've been part of the New Democratic crowd as long as I've been in Washington."

Despite the Democratic refrain that drug companies are profiteering at the expense of the elderly, Lieberman said he was opposed to price controls on drugs--"they've never worked on anything." But he said pharmaceutical companies' fears that including a prescription drug benefit under Medicare, as Democrats have proposed, would inevitably lead to price controls are misplaced. It would simply mean, he said, "the government could negotiate for better prices, just as the HMOs do for their members."

A former Connecticut attorney general, Lieberman said he has not closely examined the government's case for breaking up Microsoft but observed that the usual warning signs of "monopolistic behavior--higher prices and less innovation--on the surface do not seem to have happened here." But, he noted, "the judge found very aggressive behavior" by Microsoft and ruled that these actions may have reduced price competition or delayed innovations. "It's a very important and complicated case," he said, "and I don't want to try to judge it."

It is also an important issue in Washington state, where Microsoft is headquartered and where Gore and Lieberman are being seriously challenged by GOP presidential nominee Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his running mate, Richard B. Cheney. The Clinton-Gore ticket carried the state in 1992 and 1996.

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