November 15, 2004

Our "Un-Serious" Senator

Marc Comtois
In Sunday's ProJo, M. Charles Bakst, erstwhile stakeholder of the political commentariat of Rhode Island, took Sen. Lincoln Chafee to task for his waffling on both supporting fellow Republican President Bush and staying a Republican at all.
His flirtation with bolting the party -- and, more especially, his decision not to vote for George W. Bush and instead write in the name of the president's father -- has been an excruciating episode that has done the senator no good in Rhode Island or in Washington.

He has been in these matters the picture of indecision, and his dithering has been a distraction that has needlessly punctuated political conversation.
Indeed, all Senator Chafee has managed to do is to further call into question his own suitability as a responsible member of the Senate.
A spectacular low point came on the eve of the 2004 Republican National Convention. (He would make only a brief appearance on the New York scene.) Chafee said he supported Mr. Bush's reelection but wouldn't commit to voting for him. He looked ridiculous, and Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, more conservative, more combative, and a possible challenger in a 2006 Senate primary, could barely contain himself, asking in an interview:
"What does that mean? Usually, the people you support you vote for. Would you vote for one you wouldn't support? Or is he saying he supports two people?
Then Chafee, distancing himself further from the president but also wanting to stay away from Democrat John Kerry, hit upon the solution of writing in the name of the president's father, an old family friend whose policies he like better.

But, in declining to choose between candidate Bush and candidate Kerry, Chafee didn't make a decision, he avoided a decision. Citizens look to leaders to lead. Chafee is often accused of wanting to have things both ways. This time he outdid himself.
He certainly did. In trying to be all things to all people, he seems to take few principled stances except for the few instances (environmental, War in Iraq, Tax Custs) that find him at odds with his own (ostensibly) party. This is exacerbated by the perception that he lacks critical thinking abilities and is not the best at offering well-reasoned arguments for some of his postions.
He is who he is, not the most polished operator, but a bright guy, an honest guy, moving as best he can through the political jungle. He has plenty of interests in life, and he and his wife, the former Stephanie Danforth, have a ton of money, and he is very competitive, but he doesn't need this job, and when he's through, or when voters decide he's through, he'll find something else to do.
I suspect that in 2006 Lincoln Chafee will be the former Senator from Rhode Island.
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I agree that Chaffee is "unserious", to say the least. Hearing him tortured logic makes my head hurt. But how do you think he will go?

Will he be taken out in a primary? Rhode Island GOP voters don't seem likely to look for a conservative alternative, and conservative activist groups looking to target unconservative GOP officeholders (I'm thinking "Club for Growth" here) generally don't go after seats where the alternative to a liberal Republican is a liberal Democrat. So I don't see that happening any time soon.

Will he be defeated in a general election? This is a little more imaginable, but Chafee is still quite popular here, and the benevolent specter of his late father is a huge advantage here. If it ever did look like his Republican status was going to make him a target here, I would expect that might be all the incentive he needed to finally make the long-rumored switch over to the party that best matches up with his own political philosophy.

Will he just get fed up and quit? This, to me, is the most likely way Chafee will exit the Senate any time soon. He might just decide to chuck the whole thing and go back to shoeing horses. While this is always a possibility, he seems to enjoy being in the public spotlight, and serving as a GOP gadfly. So it could happen, but I'm not holding my breath.

~ Pseu.

Posted by: Pseudolus at November 15, 2004 4:35 PM

I agree with your take on the RIGOP not usually being predisposed to favor a conservative candidate, however it seems like the wind is blowing for Steve Laffey to challenge Chafee. Should that happen, I suspect Laffey's proven track record would help him in the primary. I'm not at all sure, right now, that Laffey could then move on to more widespread support in a Senate run, but that is a debate for another day. As far as Chafee losing in a general election should he be the Republican nominee, I agree. Politicians are usually too conservative when it comes to their own political future, so I don't see Kennedy or Langevin challenging Chafee. Finally, he just may resign on his own, but I suspect he rather enjoys being a senator. It beats shoeing, wait...(heh).

Posted by: Marc Comtois at November 15, 2004 4:47 PM

Not that this is a really scientific-y observation, but Laffey doesn't seem like a Senatorial kinda guy to me. He seems more like someone who wants to be "the guy in charge" rather than "1 in 100".

My ill-educated guess is that he's more likely to go for the governor's office than the Senate.

Posted by: Pseudolus at November 15, 2004 7:45 PM

Laffey's term expires in 2006. He certainly will not seek a third term for mayor. Governor is closed. I dont see Laffey sitting out for 4 years until 2010. That leaves the Senate Chafee runs as an independent rather than facing a primary. In a three way contest, the results could be very interesting.

Posted by: Tom at November 15, 2004 8:54 PM

I agree that Laffey has more of an "executive" personality than a senatorial one, but, as Tom has pointed out, the only slot for an upward move seems to be Senator.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at November 16, 2004 7:28 AM