Citizen in Exile: Lincoln Chafee (Part 1)

Lincoln Chafee is a soft-spoken patrician with fire in his heart.

Lincoln Chafee

Lincoln Chafee at Watson

His corridor chatter at the Watson Institute at Brown University (where we’re both visiting fellows) is unfailingly cheerful and correct, virtually Senatorial, but often the last word has a spur in it. “Did you see the Senate resolution to put a ‘terrorist’ target on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards,” he asked me the other day. “And did you see who voted in the majority for it?” Chafee had a rollcall list in hand. Rhode Island’s two Democratic Senators, and Hillary Clinton, were among the 76 votes for threatening Tehran. Sound familiar? “It’s almost a declaration of war on Iran,” Chafee said, starting to fume.

In the longer conversation recorded here, it comes clear that, boyish and buoyant though he always appears, Lincoln Chafee has suffered more for being studious, independent and foresighted — in short, for getting Iraq “right” back in October 2002 — than the Senate majority that got it “wrong.”

Chafee takes a hard line here that you haven’t heard on the campaign trail or read in a newspaper editorial: that Senators who voted to authorize the Iraq war should be disqualified for the presidency. On grounds of judgment, I ask him, or honesty?

“On grounds of ability,” he almost roars. “These individuals rendered a grossly wrong decision. It was important. Post 9.11 we needed to keep our heads. We’ve attained this pinnacle of worldwide, global supremacy. How are we going to use it? And the first thing we do is use it irresponsibly. It’s a disqualifier for me.”

Lincoln Chafee, in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 9, 2007 at the Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University

Anguish and incredulity rise in Chafee’s voice around the drumbeat for a US attack on Iran, which he believes could come without warning or debate: “anything’s possible with this administration.” It’s the final irony, the last of many twisted knives, that the Democrat who beat him for reelection last year, Sheldon Whitehouse, just voted with the 3-to-1 Senate majority for Joseph Lieberman’s resolution to target Iran’s elite force as a terrorist entity — an echo of pretexts for the Iraq war five years ago.

Chafee was the lone Republican among the 23 Senators who voted “nay” on the blank-check authorization of military force against Iraq in the autumn of 2002. Having repudiated George W. Bush and his war, and after announcing in 2004 that he would write-in Bush’s father for president, Chafee was himself run out of office in 2006 as the last obstacle to a Democratic recapture of the Senate.

Listen for yourself and check my judgment that it’s honest dismay, not self-pity, that we’re hearing in Lincoln Chafee’s voice. He seems to say that Rhode Island voters made a shrewd and effective judgment in 2006, against Bush, not against himself. He disaffiliated from the Republican Party last month. He’s a lower-case republican citizen now, uneasy about the steroid level in our politics and culture, about the imperviousness of official thinking in the face of catastrophic evidence from Iraq. The American discourse, he says, has turned “Clash-ist.” Rhymes with Fascist.

“This isn’t America,” he says, not uncheerfully, spirits rising. Born in 1953, coming of age in the Seventies, Lincoln Chafee was shaped, he says, by “the successful end of the Cold War,” that is, by ping-pong with China, by cultural exchanges and a slow thaw with Russia. He was formed still more perhaps by his father, John Chafee, who before he was Rhode Island’s governor and US Senator was a Marine volunteer, in the gruesome fight for Guadalcanal. John Chafee never spoke to his children about war. “The message was: it’s horrible. Avoid it at all costs.”

Our conversation is in two parts. The first is a mini-memoir of the US Senate and the no-win bind that forced him out of it. His biggest disappointment in Washington was the acquiescence of senior, safe-seat Republicans — Richard Lugar of Indiana, the Foreign Relations chairman, and John Warner of Virginia and the Armed Services Committee — who knew better but went along with the war mythology. On his short honor roll: the “absolutely prophetic” Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, who shouted “Fie upon this Congress” in his almost unreported denunciations of the war; and Carl Levin of Michigan, who gave his fellow Democrats an out that few of them took: an amendment to the war resolution that would have extended the schedule of diplomacy.

Click to listen to part one of Chris’s conversation with Lincoln Chafee, (18 MB MP3)

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  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Hate to keep repeating myself, but this once again is superb work Chris.

    As I listened to Senator Chafee I kept getting the vague feeling that Goya has been sending messages to the future. The Black Paintings capture a vague, yet intense, emotional response to these kinds of matters for me. And Riña a garrotazos expresses beautifully where things have been and continue to be in wars, terror campaigns, and the general failures of the humanity to push past the numbing comfort contained within acts of mutual self-destruction. Of course, there is a sunny side of the street to dance upon as well…

  • bft

    Lincoln Chafee no longer a Republican, and Jimmy Carter no longer a Southern Baptist. What next?

  • Potter

    Thank you for mentioning the Tony Judt article which I had missed.

    This interview reminds me of our previous collision (Holbrooke comments) on this topic boiling down to ( for me anyway) idealism vs. realism. We need some of each Benjamin Franklin advised. I don’t wish to perpetuate this rotten system but we have it, we are in it. I don’t know how to change it. Attempts at reform seem to have failed utterly.

    Chafee does not appear entirely idealistic but he also misjudged his constituency and the broader mood of the nation:

    In the beginning of the interview Chafee says “voters are smart”.

    And he speaks of his dilemma: whether to stay in the majority party prior to the 2006 election, a party that he disagreed with almost entirely, in order to bring home the pork, or whether to leave. Did he believe that the Republican majority, would endure or survive an administration that so thoroughly trashed ideals ofd what this country should be about? Did he believe Republicans would not have to pay/answer for where they have taken us? That the people of RI voted in a Democrat in Chafee’s place indicates that pork was not as important to them as sending a message to Republicans. But Chafee stood for Republicans. He stood with Republicans. His choice. He missed that many, enough in the country, were ready to throw the Republicans out despite serious problems with Democrats, their ennabling, lack of oversight, courage and so forth. So the disqualifier for enough voters in 2006 seems to have been being a Republican.

    How effective is an office holder with all the right instincts, such as Chafee, but “in exile”, out of office? If his goal was to have some effect didn’t he need to maintain his Senate seat? Would it not have been better for him to leave the party earlier, before the election (as Chris suggests by his questions), the party he felt wrong on so many issues, to become an Independent (if he could not stomach Democrats) than to try to work against the impossibly huge force against him within the party? That would have made waves and possibly would have saved his seat. I know- this is all hindsight. Like the “war vote”.

    Also, the people may be smart, but they are not all of the same persuasion. It took time for too many to wise up about this war. At least half of voters voted Bush and his congressional ennablers in again in ‘04.

    If we somehow would collectively ban those who voted for the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002 do you suppose any wiser more able candidates under this system would rise to fill the vacuum? And if not, who would that leave us with now at a time when the process of running for president is well under way?

    More importantly how do we change this system in which no better candidates will run?

    Even more importantly, for me anyway, realistically and practically and even morally, does this argument mean that office holders cannot learn from their errors? Okay,some don’t. But some appear to have: Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Bill Richardson (as Governor initially supported the war). There are questions about the quality of Joe Biden’s and Hillary Clinton’s regret but the regret is there. I don’t think either one would vote the same again.

    Perhaps because of criticism Hillary Clinton is now co-sponsoring the Webb resolution which requires the president to seek congressional approval before taking any action against Iran.

    Biden considers the 2002 resolution no longer relevant. He wanted to repeal it:

    We gave the president that power to destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and, if necessary, to depose Saddam Hussein. The weapons of mass destruction were not there. Saddam Hussein is no longer there. The 2002 authorization is no longer relevant to the situation in Iraq.

    Obama is kind of tainted too. He voted appropriations for the war once he was in office even though he was against the war prior to holding office.

    So does Chafee mean that if a candidate voted for that resolution and now regrets it, he/she is marked and forbidden from serving and doing good or making amends? If these candidates are too tainted and must be disqualified by us, then their present position, their evolution,counts for naught? That seems too harsh, even righteous and vindictive. In practice it may be harmful.

    Should we not even consider the alternatives in the race on both sides that may rise in their place?

    Speaking of Senator Byrd, a look at his career will show the many errors in judgment he made. Yet he redeems himself over the years. On the other hand perhaps he was allowed to, reelected, because at least in part, over the years, he sweetened things by bringing home a lot of pork. But he did not have Chafee’s dilemma either.

    Those who voted for the 2002 Iraq resolution did misjudge, misplaced their trust in Bush and Cheney no question. But also read Clinton’s October 2002 floor speech to enter her mind at the time.

    It was plausible for some to believe in 2002 that Bush would not take us to war unnecessarily or precipitously, that the resolution was to show our seriousness and help push for unity at the U.N. to force Hussein’s compliance. Some who voted for it saw it that way, including John Kerry who would have been so much better than Bush these past few years .

  • Sutter

    Chris, it’s somewhat strange that you omit any mention of the first quarter or so of the discussion, in which Chafee outright embarrasses himself with a delusional explanation for why he stuck with the Republican party. (As if the party would have rewarded him for winning re-election by criticizing Bush and publicizing his vote for Kerry.) When Lieberman deployed similar pork-based arguments as a justification for rejecting Lamont, we (rightly) laughed at him.

  • Potter

    Sutter-In 2004 Chafee did not vote for Kerry ( did you mean to imply that?)- he wrote in the name of GHW Bush ( the father) ( if this article is correct.

    Why did Chafee vote to cut off debate on the appointment of Sam Alito to Supreme Court even though he was afraid of how Alito would rule? see the above linked article again. It says only after, did Chafee say what he believed:

    Chafee did not announce his opposition to the nomination until a majority of Senators had already publicly said they would support Alito.

    from the Fox news story:

    Sen. Lincoln Chafee on Monday was the first Senate Republican to announce his opposition to Alito’s nomination to the high court. He said he was concerned about what he perceived as Alito’s sympathetic stance on executive power in light of the administration’s recently uncovered warrantless wiretapping program

    Chafee, who is running for re-election this year and faces a more conservative Republican primary opponent, added that he feared Alito would be an enemy of reproductive freedom and the environment, and called himself a “pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-Bill of Rights Republican.”

    Though Democrats who strongly oppose Alito’s confirmation to the high court may have been cheered by Chafee’s support, he said Democrats could not count on his help in blocking a vote.

    “How are we going to get anything done if we can’t work together?” Chafee asked after saying he would vote against a filibuster, a procedural move designed to prevent a vote on a nomination.

  • Chris, these stripped down shows are great. I mean, what more do you need? I’m starting to miss the annoying leadin music less and less 🙂

  • Sutter

    Fair enough, Potter. My mistake. But as you recognize, the point still stands — the idea that Chafee was going to be a Democrat with all the rights and privileges of a Republican in a Republican majority is silly.

  • ghostofdali

    That election was a very difficult choice for us in RI. Chafee had been a fine senator, and I’m glad he continues to be an extraordinary man. But his reasoning is still flawed, and perhaps it’s because he’s a man of good conscience that the reasoning caused his defeat. He was clearly (and virtually self-describedly) bullied and intimidated into staying on a sinking ship. Most of us in RI would say that had he run as an independent, he would have won the race. Though Whitehouse has done well, particularly in the investigation of the Attorney General’s office, I didn’t feel particularly compelled to vote for him except for the fact that he was NOT a Republican. Linc says that RI could have been punished by perhaps losing the highway funding or by BRAC, but those sound like hollow threats. We have a very Republican governor who couldn’t get his boat further up Bush’s garbage canal if he tried, and the chance of truly damaging retribution seems slim to me.

    Change is inherently difficult, as inertia is a deceptively powerful force, but when the reality that our current path and its field of possible outcomes are so clearly propelling our people and our nation to destruction, it is not the time to hold on to the status quo. Chafee is a gentle man, he described his defeat as feeling like a “punch in the gut,” but that’s what bullies do – you can take the punch and win or you can take the punch and lose.

  • Potter

    Sutter, I agree. I read that Chafee also wound up voting for the Bolton nomination apparently against his better judgement.

    It seems to me that he was wishing that the party was what it used to be when it had actually morphed almost totally into something that he found hard to support. And he was not going to change it almost single handedly. By leaving he might have made a dent. Yet he held on, stood with them, took their support, perhaps loved the attention too, but in the end it harmed him. It was as if he was burning his candle at both ends and calling it “bi-partisanship”. Compromise is essential, but on certain things one does not conpromise or you lose it all. He stood up against the war and that was good, He deserves the credit for that one but his timing was really off about leaving the party.

    I really appreciate your post “ghostofdali”.

  • Potter

    RR Anderson says: I mean, what more do you need?

    More folks commenting.

  • Zeke

    I was appalled to hear that Whitehouse voted for Liebrerman’s resolution about the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

  • Bully for Chafee. As someone who was looking for the Republicans to get a comeuppance in the last election, I was still shocked about his failed re-election bid. What is wrong with people? He represented everything people said they were crying out for, but they couldn’t get past the label.

    I’m so glad to hear someone talk about disqualifying candidates based on their performance post-9/11. You can’ t have a better litmus test for leadership.

    Keep up the awesome interviews, Chris.

    Cheers, Allison

  • Potter

    Hi Allison!

    You say: “What is wrong with people? He represented everything people said they were crying out for, but they couldn’t get past the label.”

    Thank you Bush about the label ( and thank you Nixon, Reagan and Bush father). Label was all. From the start in office GWB was only a Republican and for Republicans.

    Though Rhode Island is a reliably Democratic State, they have a Republican Governor (Donald Carcieri) elected twice now. In the past they elected John Chafee, Republican, as Governor. As well they sent John Chafee to the Senate for 23 years before Lincoln Chafee took over upon his father’s passing. So Rhode Islanders do not seem to be all that hung up on labels when it comes to a good man. But these times are different.

    The only good way to send a message is through the ballot box. Chafee stood with and for Republicans who have done so much harm, taken this country so far in the wrong direction these past few years. Enough people were mad as hell. As one of a handful, if that, of liberal Republicans in Congress, Chafee had what effect? What good was what he represented if he put himself in a box standing with and hence giving power to others who were against most of what he represented?

    Unfortunately the label means everything. And this is what that label has come to mean.

  • ghostofdali

    What was most disturbing for me was that Chafee used to represent himself and his own convictions, rather than the interests of his party or even his backers. In an age where all major political candidates are assumed to be stand-ins for the cronies who secured their political positions, Linc was a refreshing example of a man who can afford to think independently about issues. As Potter said, he was appointed after the death of his father, and had the benefit of never having to run as anything other than encumbant. In addition, Linc had strong support from his constituents, which meant that his allegiance to the usually overwhelming “powers that be” was minimal. He was the kind of Senator who could be swayed by the opinions of the citizens of Rhode Island, even if they clashed with Washington. And that’s the major dissapointment, because that’s exactly what he sacrificed by choosing to stay with a party that was so willing to hang him out to dry.

    What we needed “post-9/11” was someone with the courage to protect the people of RI from the rabid hawks in Washington, and Linc chose to stand in line with them. His votes and his “label” don’t mean half as much as a Senate majority that would continue rubber stamping the president’s reckless ventures and would also ensure congressional committees that would continue ceding power to the executive branch without question.

    Whitehouse isn’t much better, but at least his allegiance is to the other party. Would GOP led hearings including questions about torture? Would they be chasing Alberto Gonzales for his role in politically motivated firings? Would the SCHIP bill have even made it to the president’s desk? And this business about calling the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization is troubling, but it was only a small part the bill. Had he voted against it you’d be hearing about how he voted down legislation on hate crimes, veteran’s benefits, and water conservation. He ‘s not a perfect Senator, and may not even prove to be worth reelecting, but at least he didn’t get in line behind the president’s failing party.