Governor Lincoln Chafee took the political world by surprise last Wednesday, announcing his decision not to seek reelection in the 2014 race for governor. Chafee began his career as a Republican, but in May of this year he formally affiliated with the Democratic Party after serving most of his gubernatorial term as an Independent. Most political commentators viewed his decision to affiliate with the Democratic Party as part of a strategy to improve his reelection chances. However, Chafee’s prospects in the Democratic primary were dim: throughout the summer he trailed competitors State General treasurer Gina Raimundo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras in fundraising.
Chafee’s poor prospects and his decision to drop out of the race can be attributed to factors beyond his ideological footing, first and foremost being Rhode Island’s high unemployment rate and his low job approval ratings. However, the governor’s choice to “effectively [end his] political career,” as characterized by the New York Times, brings attention to the dwindling number of centrists in politics. The past decade of Chafee’s career provides ample evidence of the no man’s land that moderates must contend with in the current political atmosphere.
Chafee’s tenure as Republican senator from Rhode Island from 1999 through 2007 was an anomaly for today’s Republican Party, and it was his persistent incongruence with the GOP that drove him out of it. Chafee regularly deviated from the party line on the environment, taxes and foreign policy. According to the National Journal’s 2006 vote rankings he was the most liberal Republican in the senate – more liberal than Democratic senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. What was most distinctive of Chafee as a Republican senator was his stubborn criticism of President George Bush, particularly the president’s action in Iraq. Chafee was the only GOP senator to vote against the 2002 resolution giving the president authority to invade Iraq and he denounced Bush’s unilateral approach to the war.
Despite his regular policy disagreements with his party and the president, Chafee reconciled his label as a Republican by citing the similar voting patters of fellow moderate Republican senator, John McCain, and by arguing that Americans want centrist government.
Chafee’s time with the GOP eventually ran its course, however. As Bush’s first term came to a close Chafee criticized the president’s agenda of “energizing the far right-wing base,” and called Bush’s actions divisive. In November 2004 Chafee publicly considered leaving his party and did so in 2007, becoming an independent in his run for governor after losing his senate seat to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.
What should be understood is that Chafee was not out of place in the GOP when he was first elected to office in 1986 to the Warwick, Rhode Island City Council. Growing up with today’s congressional politics, observers assume representatives will either hold a Democrat or a Republican party line position on major issues – the environment, gun control, oil. This rigid approach to legislation breeds for-or-against-politics and makes for poor governing because it drives out moderate legislators. Chafee did not fit the mold for the GOP of today, making his time in the Senate and his reelection campaign contentious. Republicans (like Chafee once was), and moderate Democrats are going to become rarer and rarer in politics as they are either ousted or become fed up navigating political waters that insist on conformity to party templates.
In 2005 Chafee was a member of a bipartisan coalition of middle of the road senators referred to as “the Gang of 14.” The group successfully negotiated an agreement that put an end to an organized Democrat filibuster of Bush judicial nominees and prevented a senatorial vote on the “nuclear option,” or the elimination of filibustering as a strategy to stop judicial confirmation votes. Like Chafee, a handful of both moderate Democrats and Republicans of “the Gang of 14” have struggled to keep their seats in the senate in recent years due to their moderate ideologies and voting records.
A Democrat member of the gang, Ben Nelson, announced his decision to retire in December 2011 instead of waging an uphill battle for reelection in red-state, Nebraska. Despite his popularity and having one of the lowest rates of voting with the Democratic majority when he left the senate, Nelson received flack from his conservative constituency for supporting Obama’s healthcare overhaul.
Mike DeWine faced similar struggles to Nelson when he ran for reelection 2006. After serving one term as Ohio senator and nearly two decades a representative in the House he lost his seat to Democrat Sherrod Brown. Though he lost to a Democrat, during his campaign DeWine was criticized for not being sufficiently conservative.
Joe Lieberman left his party to become an Independent after losing the Democratic primary for senate in 2006. The highly liberal primary electorate rejected Lieberman’s support of the Iraq War and chose anti-war Ned Lamont. “The old politics of partisan polarization won today,” he said following his loss to Lamont. Moderate Lieberman was successful with the voters of the general election, however, and retained his seat.
Republican senator from Maine Olympia Snowe chose to retire in 2012 despite high chances of reelection. Snowe is a moderate, liberal on social issues and one of the few Republicans to support abortion rights. She cited intense partisanship in Congress and frustration with take-it-or-leave-it showdowns as her reasons for retirement.
Lastly, Chafee’s circumstance for Senate reelection in 2006 also followed the disadvantageous pattern of many Senate moderates. Conservative Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, challenged him in the Republican primary, and though Laffey’s chances of winning the general election were negligible, Chafee only won 54 percent of votes in the primary after a hard fought campaign. In the general election Chafee lost to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, falling victim to the trend of individual senators being held culpable for their political parties in national referendums. Chafee was more popular with Democrats than Republicans in Rhode Island and he was still ousted with a party he scarcely identified with.
In his speech announcing he will not seek reelection for governor, Chafee said he would rather devote the rest of his time as governor to the challenges facing Rhode Island, than focus on a time-consuming campaign. Perhaps Chafee’s stated dedication to governing over ensuring reelection demonstrates his position as a moderate – namely his distaste for trying to appeal to a party base in order to sustain a political career. The unfortunate paradox is that if moderates don’t start to pander more aggressively to voters – of both moderate and extreme ideologies – they will continue to disappear from public office.
Governor Lincoln D. Chafee ’75 is the 74th Governor of Rhode Island. Elected in 2010 on a platform of increasing government transparency and economic revitalization, Chafee will likely face challengers from both the left and right in his upcoming reelection. During a live filmed interview, Chafee sat down with BPR’s Interview Director Emily Gelber to discuss his time at Brown, gun control in Rhode Island and his upcoming chances at reelection in 2014.
Brown Political Review: Thanks for sitting down with the Brown Political Review. I wanted to start with your experience at Brown. Were you politically active when you were a Brown student?
Lincoln Chafee: No, although [during] those years — I graduated in 1975 — everything was very politically active on campuses all over America. When the 1972 presidential election occurred, which was Nixon against McGovern occurred, there was just a lot of involvement with students. Then Watergate came after that so there was a lot of involvement with students and the issues of the day.
BPR: Do you think it’s different today, that students are involved in politics like they were then?
LC: I pick up The Brown Daily Herald frequently and it seems like they are always asking for letters. Back in those days the letters would flood in [with] different opinions. You didn’t have to pull teeth to get someone to send a letter in. But it’s an ebb and flow. Other interests that are occurring might not be politics. With the Obama election, students were critical to his success across the country and I’m sure that’s true on the Brown campus. And I know here in the Statehouse, Brown students will be involved in political issues so there’s not a complete absence of activity.
BPR: Do you think this generation is distrustful of the government? Some people believe that there was an effort to stop students from voting, and students are really dealing with debt; is there a different sentiment towards government now?
LC: I don’t think so, and I don’t want to speak for you, but I don’t think there is a complete distrust. I think there is a little bit of discontent. You mentioned student debt, [the] disparity of wealth the students are seeing out there. I think the Occupy movement was an expression of disparity of wealth but I don’t think there is distrust yet. It is more that we have to stay vigilant and watch out for those that are looking out for themselves instead of the common good, and it’s always the idealism that young people have.
BPR: The Occupy movement has been criticized for having no central leadership and fizzling out; was there any change that emerged from this movement?
LC: It was a good statement. It came out of nowhere from my perspective, and all of a sudden, whether it was Manhattan or San Francisco or Providence, there were people making a statement. It occurred right as winter came on so it lasted much longer than I thought. I thought that the statement still resonates; I still see bumper stickers or signs that say “99 percent,” “I’m part of the 99 percent.” And so it was a strong statement coming as it did, without forecast.
BPR: You’re big on reducing student loans and making college more affordable. What is the meaning of a college degree now?
LC: Well, I do think that going back to my experience after World War II and the G.I. Bill and the strength of the state universities across America — whether it was Missouri or Arizona or Montana or Illinois or California — the strong institutions of affordable public higher education coupled with the G.I. Bill, that’s what made America strong. People just were able to go to that community college or go to that four-year institution and get a degree. And now we’re seeing that more and more debt, even at public institutions of higher education, just makes it more difficult.
The skills that are needed out there do take a lot of education to match the demands that companies have for higher technology, and if you are graduating with this tremendous student debt, one of the things it stifles is the chance to do something alternative, which I did after college, and what many were able to do like join the Peace Corps or Teach for America. You just can’t do that because you have student loans that you have to immediately start paying back and you want, I think, graduates to go out and get a little dirt under their fingernails in different ways and learn the ways of the world and make contacts that might take them into different paths of life that are very valuable. You cannot do that once you start having children and mortgages and all the pressures that come with those responsibilities. I mean Steve Jobs and other that have done different things profited greatly from those years of not having a high student debt.
BPR: I want to talk a little bit about your opinions on gun policy. Is there federal influence on the ability of a state to create gun legislation?
LC: It’s a mix. Certainly, we would prefer to have the federal government pass some common-sense gun safety laws. When I was in the United States Senate, we were trying to close the gun show loophole…We were also looking at the assault weapons. We already have a waiting period to buy a gun; we’ve passed that. To buy a gun, you need a background check but you can go to a gun show and buy it there and walk out with it, no background check.
BPR: Why is that?
LC:Because [sellers] said that gun shows travel around. [The gun show] would be in one community one weekend and then in another community another weekend and there’s not a chance for someone to buy the gun and then come back a week after the background check and pick it up because they’ve moved.
BPR: So it’s a matter of convenience?
LC: Yes, but there was a loophole and if you’re going to have the background checks, let’s stick to them universally. So those were federal laws. We were not successful. The Second Amendment advocates are very, very powerful and the NRA, we know about the power of the NRA. Also, hunters have an innate fear that the government is going to take away their guns. And even progressive states such as Vermont — Vermont legislators in Washington were very strong in fighting against some of these common-sense gun safety measures. Vermont has a big hunting population. There are a lot of deer hunters.
BPR: I didn’t realize hunters had such a big influence on gun policy. Do they have a huge presence in the NRA?
LC: Yes, so it’s a mix of true hunters that think that the government is going to take away their 20-gauge shotguns — and one thing leads to another, and pretty soon, they’re not going to have their bird-hunting gun or their squirrel-hunting gun or their deer-hunting gun.
BPR: And realistically, what do you think you could get passed for Rhode Island?
LC: We have a good package of bills. I think the ones that the law enforcement agencies really are strong on are the assault guns. Truly, what hunter needs an assault gun or a large magazine clip? I just think [Second Amendment advocates are] treating it as a step. First they take away my assault weapon, and then they take another. So we just have to fight back against that. This isn’t a progressive step of taking away guns. It’s just common sense; nobody needs an assault gun with a large magazine clip. You’re not allowed to hunt with them, so what do you need them for?
BPR: Many gun owners fear that “common sense” regulation like background checks and assault weapons bans will lead to more intrusion down the road. What do you say to that? Is that something that is just embedded in the American way?
LC: Well, I just know that being in politics, I went to a meeting that had nothing to do with guns — it was about fire districts in Coventry — but many of the people that were standing around were saying “Hey, don’t take away my guns.” Those are the buzzwords that come out, “Hey, don’t take away my guns.”
BPR: And is that a campaign from gun owners, catchphrases that people use to ignite fear?
LC: Well, we talked about distrust of government, and that it starts with that. They don’t trust the government [when it says] that this is common sense regulation. It’s not a subversive plot to take away every hunting rifle or shotgun that legitimate sportsmen need and have.
BPR: So, getting back to distrust of government, is political polarization in Washington increasing distrust of government?
LC: It certainly helps with distrust, the polarization that I witnessed in my time there, and it seems to have gotten even worse. Somebody yelled out at the State of the Union address at President Obama, “You lie.” A member of Congress in the middle of the State of the Union address — that to me crystallized the partisanship, such a phrase to yell out at a somber occasion. Unbelievable. We have to do a better job at coming together to solve our national problems. The two parties coming together at the table and getting the job done doesn’t seem to be working.
BPR: What do we need to do to get Democrats and Republicans to start working together on important issues?
LC: It’s a big discussion, what we need to do. They say as you get involved with these primaries — I think that is very accurate — that in order to prevail, as John McCain found out and Mitt Romney found out on the Republican side, you’re just pulled further and further to the edges. And they used to say it’s not as bad as the Democratic side, but [they are also] pulled further and further to the left. President Clinton was successful at saying, when he was running in the primaries, “I’m not going to be pulled way out to the left here. I know I have to run in November, and I think I can prevail in the primaries and still chart a more central path.”
It was in this last election when Romney’s campaign manager said, “Etch-a-Sketch, we take the primaries and shake it up and start all over again” and you shouldn’t have to be that way. You should be making statements that you’re going to be held to every day of the campaign, not shake it up and start over. Now we have a different view on immigration. Now we have a different view on international issues. Now we have a different view on guns. It shouldn’t be one position for the primaries and another one for the November election. It shouldn’t be that way.
BPR: But isn’t it that more polarized and politically extreme people vote in the primaries?
LC: Yes, that’s one of the problems.
BPR: So how do we get more people to vote in the primaries?
LC: It used to be that there weren’t primaries — you went to a convention. And then there was dissatisfaction with the smoke-filled rooms [of conventions]. Out of the convention comes a candidate that a few delegates have elected who is now our choice for president, and so [people said], “Let’s go to the primary system.” Maybe we need to go back — and it’s ever evolving, to elect delegates and they go to the convention and argue over who has the most successful chance in November, and we’ll pick that person rather than through the primary system where you build up and you’re committed to the winning of delegates.
BPR: I’m curious, what did you think of the Republican primaries in the last election?
LC: It’s amazing to watch the Rudy Giulianis and the Mitt Romneys and the John McCains who I know as moderate — they couldn’t get elected in New York City or Massachusetts. And I know John McCain was good on environmental issues, he was good in immigration issues, he was good on tax policy when I served with him and when he ran for president, he changed. [He] was completely different on the issues. Completely different. It’s sad to see.
BPR: What’s your prediction for the future of the Republican Party right now?
LC: Good question. They are going through a lot of soul-searching. One of the reasons I left the party is their focus on social issues that seem to galvanize the base, energize the base and that was part of their strategy whether it’s immigration or gay marriage, whether its immigration, or gay marriage or abortion —so many of these social issues that I don’t think the general public ultimately cast as priorities. I’d rather [have] us get the economy going, take care of health care and have good schools and low tuitions. These are the issues people are talking about [while] the Republican Party is getting into these social issues deeper and deeper.
BPR: You mentioned your time as a Senate Republican. How have your views changed since you left the Republican Party to become an independent?
LC: Well, my views haven’t changed and that is why I left the party. I stand behind my votes against the deep tax cuts even as a Republican; in fact, John McCain and I were the only two votes against the Bush tax cuts which favored the wealthy and brought back deficits. I’m proud of my vote against the war in Iraq, I’m proud of my vote against the prescription drug benefit before we reform Medicare, because we are adding another unpaid benefit to Medicare. These are all fiscally conservative, Republican-like policies. And that hasn’t changed since becoming governor. I like being an Independent governor, the only one in the 50 states, and I don’t know whether governing has been easier since being independent, but it has been interesting to be in this position. [There are] a few other independents now in the Senate, like Bernie Sanders, but they caucus with the Democratic Party, so we’ll see.
BPR: Is there any chance we’ll see you on the Democratic ticket in 2014?
LC: Well, certainly I think about that, when I left the Republican Party, I became an independent and I did support Sen. Barack Obama for president in 2008. I then supported him again in 2012; I spoke at the Democratic Convention and heard the issues that I cared about, whether it’s environment or even fiscal conservatism which used to be Republic and is now more of a democratic issue — no deficits, using the tools of government to help build up strong middle class, and personal liberties. Republicans are turning their backs on warrant-less wiretapping and some of our First Amendment freedoms. It seems that the Democratic Party has embraced some of those issues that I care about.
BPR: What’s your feeling on gay marriage in the Supreme Court? What are we going to see?
LC: A prediction? The Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act — President Obama’s healthcare bill — favorably, with Chief Justice Roberts being the key vote there. So I think they’ll see this as a constitutional right. Why should we be discriminating against two people that love each other and want to get married? I have some guarded optimism there. Our neighboring states have all passed it — NY, CT, MA, VT, ME, NH. It’s passed our House 5 –19 overwhelmingly and we’re waiting for a vote in the Senate. So although the Supreme Court is ruling, we’re also trying to get it passed here locally, here in our Statehouse and hopefully, that will be soon and successful.
BPR: So is the movement going to come from the states?
LC: Yes, it is.
BPR: Is that a more powerful force than the federal government?
LC: I’d like both. I think the Supreme Court should rule and that the states should pass it also.
BPR: So, my last question: Who’s going to be on the ballot in 2016?
LC: Well, it seems like we just got done with ’12, doesn’t it?
BPR: I know, but everyone is talking about it. Do you think Hillary Clinton is going to run?
LC: I do, at least that’s her plan right now. I don’t know whether the fatigue will set in, whether she can really keep this us. She’s going to do a book and then go on a book tour and eventually, it’s going to catch up to her. It seems like we just ended ’12 but that’s the sport that we’re in.
BPR: Are you going to give a name?
LC: The issues here in Rhode Island are just so intense. I have my own election coming up in 2014 so never mind 2016. My focus isn’t on 2016.