Thursday, November 09, 2006

Nothing Left to Lose
I always figured the only reason Lincoln Chafee remained a Republican was that he thought a change of party would dishonor the memory of his father John, a legendary public servant who served Rhode Island in the Senate from 1976 until his death in 1999. The story of the younger Chafee is, to my read, among the sadder political tales of the last decade or so. A Republican in one of the country's most Democratic states, Lincoln Chafee was in a sense selling back bits of the public esteem his father had enjoyed in return for his own political viability. He talked like a Democrat, cast a lot of high-profile votes like a Democrat (against the war, against right-wing judicial nominees, etc), and famously even chose not to vote for George W. Bush in 2004 (writing in a vote for Bush 41).

This year, he repeatedly found himself in the strangest of circumstances, narrowly fending off a ferocious primary challenge from a hard-core conservative with a massive influx of resources from the national Republican establishment Chafee had all but repudiated and then losing Tuesday to a solid but unspectacular progressive Democrat despite sustained high approval ratings from his Ocean State constituents. Watching the returns, it gave me satisfaction but no pleasure to see Linc go down; as I wrote Monday night, this was a parliamentary vote, and we had to boot his party. If he'd changed his registration in 2003--as I still think he might have, if Paul Wellstone had lived and won the victory that would have left the Senate tied 50-50--he would have won 70 percent or more the other night and essentially secured his father's old seat for as long as he wanted it.

Oddly, Chafee evidently is considering making the switch now--years after his political self-interest would have been best served by doing so:

Two days after losing a bid for a second term in an election seen as a referendum on President Bush and the Republican Party, Sen. Lincoln Chafee said he was unsure whether he'd remain a Republican.

"I haven't made any decisions. I just haven't even thought about where my place is," Chafee said at a news conference Thursday when asked whether he would stick with the Republican Party or switch to be an independent or Democrat.

When asked if his comments meant he thought he might not belong in the Republican Party, he replied: "That's fair."
When asked whether he felt that his loss may have helped the country by switching control of power in Congress, he replied: "To be honest, yes."

"The people have spoken all across America. They want the Democrats and Republicans to work together," Chafee added. "I think the president now is going to have to talk to the Democrats. I think that's going to be good for America."

A lifelong Republican who succeeded his father, the late John Chafee, in the U.S. Senate, Chafee said he waged a lonely campaign to try to bring the party to the middle. He described attending weekly Thursday lunches with fellow Republican senators and standing up to argue his point of view, often alone.

"There were times walking into my caucus room where it wasn't fun," he said.

Chafee seems to blame the national party for his loss, and at this late point he evidently feels no reason to hold back: today, after Bush re-nominated belligerent John "Yosemite" Bolton for a permanent appointment as U.N. Ambassador, Chafee essentially ensured that Bolton would not be confirmed.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (news, bio, voting record), R-R.I., who was defeated by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse on Tuesday, told reporters in Rhode Island that he would continue opposing Bolton. That would likely deny Republicans the votes needed to move Bolton's nomination from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to the full Senate.

"The American people have spoken out against the president's agenda on a number of fronts, and presumably one of those is on foreign policy," Chafee said. "And at this late stage in my term, I'm not going to endorse something the American people have spoke out against."
In 2005, Chafee wavered on his support for Bolton, citing concerns at one point about Bolton's tie to a government investigation into faulty prewar intelligence on Iraq. In September, Chafee — who was in a tight re-election race — said he would oppose Bolton's nomination until the administration answered questions about its policy in the Middle East, which in effect delayed any vote until after the elections.

If Chafee finally does sever his ties to Republican Party, he'll have as much right as any pol in recent memory to paraphrase Ronald Reagan and say, "I didn't leave the Republican Party; the Republican Party left me."

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