fb-pixel Skip to main content

Former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee’s exploration of a presidential run has been met with a mix of bewilderment and derision in his home state.

The Providence Journal, in a stinging editorial, tore into his single term as governor and declared it “preposterous” that “such a dismal record in an executive position would be a recommendation for the presidency (of the United States!).”

The national press, for its part, has largely ignored his near-candidacy. The endless dissections of prohibitive favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential bid make at least passing reference to other Democratic hopefuls, such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley. Chafee, the Republican-turned-independent now seeking the Democratic nomination? Not so much.

Advertisement



But in a primary that has been defined, almost entirely, by questions about whether Clinton’s opponents will tug her to the left, he could play a role.

While Sanders hammers away on the domestic front, emphasizing income inequality and campaign finance reform, Chafee is focused on international affairs.

His signature moment came in October 2002, when he was the sole Republican US senator to vote against the war in Iraq. And he is working to make Clinton’s vote for the conflict, as a New York senator, the signature moment of her career.

“After September 11, there were high emotions — people were scared, and they were angry,” he said, in a recent interview. “We, as a Senate, had a responsibility to exercise good judgment at that moment in history.”

For Chafee, Clinton’s vote for the war — a vote, he says, that should disqualify her from the presidency — is part of a broader tendency toward interventionism that is dangerous for the country.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric out there — ‘a muscular America,’ ” he said. “I want a different approach, which I would argue is more in our long-term interest.”

Advertisement



Chafee’s vote against the war speaks to a stubborn, principled streak that will be central to his presidential run.

But there is a funny quality to Chafee’s contrarianism. His truth telling is not fiery; in a video announcing his exploration of a presidential run, he sat before a large bookcase, stiffly trumpeting his “level-headedness” and “careful foresight.”

They are the virtues of a dying breed: the moderate, Yankee politician.

Chafee, 62, a Brown University graduate who spent several years shoeing horses in the United States and Canada before getting into politics, is descended from one of the “Five Families” who held sway over Rhode Island before Irish and Italian immigrants pried power from the old guard.

His late father John, a governor and US senator, was a towering figure in Ocean State politics — a liberal Republican and ardent environmentalist who pressed for Medicaid expansions during the Reagan years.

By the time he died in 1999, he was largely isolated in an increasingly conservative party. And Lincoln Chafee, who took his father’s Senate post, found himself in a similar position.

He opposed President George W. Bush’s tax cuts. And he stood by his opposition to the looming war in Iraq even after Vice President Dick Cheney called Rhode Island talk radio to apply pressure.

But that push to separate himself from the Bush administration was not enough to hold back a swell of anti-Republican sentiment in Rhode Island. And in 2006, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse ousted him from the Senate.

Advertisement



Chafee spoke at a potluck dinner event in New Hampshire.
Chafee spoke at a potluck dinner event in New Hampshire. Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe

Four years later, he ran for governor as an independent under the slogan “Trust Chafee,” and squeaked into office in a multicandidate race.

But his damn-the-politics approach did not serve him well. A plan to expand the sales tax flopped. And his two-year insistence on calling the State House spruce a “holiday tree” instead of a Christmas tree became a symbol of a can’t-shoot-straight administration — never mind that his predecessors had used the same appellation.

With the Rhode Island economy foundering and his approval ratings cratering, Chafee and his wife, Stephanie, discussed his political future during a six-hour drive to a vacation home in Maine in August 2013.

“We talked about what the long-term goals were,” he said. “Even at that time, I was concerned about where we’re going internationally. I said, ultimately I’d like to be back talking about those issues.”

Now, he is. But it’s unclear if voters will listen.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released this week found Republican primary voters putting national security and terrorism at the top of their list of concerns. But among Democrats, jobs and the economy were the most important issues, followed by health care and climate change.

Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said the Iraq war vote does not weigh on Democratic voters like it did when Clinton ran for president in 2008.

There is greater distance on the vote, he said. Clinton has built a more robust foreign policy resume as secretary of state. And the last Iraq war opponent to criticize Clinton in a presidential race, Barack Obama, was more of an electoral threat.

Advertisement



“Let’s be blunt,” Drezner said. “Lincoln Chafee is not going to defeat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.”

Drezner, though, said Chafee’s broader critique of Clinton’s interventionist tendencies — the former secretary of state wrote in her book, “Hard Choices,” that she favored arming rebels in their fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but was overruled by President Obama — could prove uncomfortable in a Democratic primary.

Chafee’s first foray into New Hampshire, an appearance before 50 Democratic activists in a Milford church basement Wednesday night, suggested the promise — and the drawbacks — of his approach.

After a nod to education, health care, and immigration reform, he spoke at length about his opposition to the Iraq war and lamented the country’s post-Sept. 11 embrace of torture and assassination. And he made a case for the relevance of foreign policy.

“Especially in the presidential race, all the Republicans are going to be outdoing each other to be more belligerent,” he said. “Yes it’s far away — Iraq and Nigeria and Libya and Syria — but we’re all connected in this world. And if we as Democrats can say, ‘We’re going to be the ones fighting for a better way’ . . . I think that’s a political winner.”

But after his talk, only one of the dozen questions he took from the activists focused on foreign policy. They asked, instead, about income inequality, campaign finance reform, and police brutality.

Advertisement



Chafee’s answers to those queries were tentative and, afterward, the crowd gave him mixed reviews.

But for Penny Eggleston, 73, a retired college librarian, Chafee’s critique of American interventionism said something important about his basic values and competence.

“He was smart enough, back then, to vote against the Iraq war,” she said, calling the conflict “a disastrous decision” with a “disastrous outcome.”

“I would vote for him,” Eggleston added, “if he has a chance to win.”

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.