With GOP in ‘rearview mirror,’ Chafee ’75 drives on

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Before sitting down to talk about his recent decision to leave the Republican Party, Lincoln Chafee ’75 pulls out the program for this February’s Follies, an annual revue put on by the Providence Newspaper Guild.

Chafee flips through the pages before finding the lyrics to a song sung by an impersonator of Sheldon Whitehouse, the Democrat who spoiled Chafee’s Senate re-election bid in November. In his soft voice, Chafee begins singing to the tune of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

“The night we drove Linc Chafee down, all the phones were ringing,” he begins, as his assistant at the Watson Institute for International Studies, where Chafee is a visiting fellow, joins in. “The night we drove Linc Chafee down, all the people were singing. They went, Linc, you know we think you’re great – it’s the president we really hate!”

As the two finish the song, Chafee smiles and chuckles. He doesn’t mind talking or joking about his election-day defeat, he says. After all, after he lost his elected position the moderate Republican had a chance to cut ties with a party that, he felt, no longer represented his views.

When Chafee drove to the Exeter Town Hall in July to drop his party affiliation, signing the necessary paperwork felt like a formality, he says. Mentally, he checked out of the Republican Party when he left Washington in January.

“I drove up I-95 with D.C. in my rearview mirror and, more philosophically, the Republican Party in my rearview mirror,” he says.

Chafee says he started to think about leaving the party on election night in November 2004, when it became clear that President Bush would be re-elected. Chafee never agreed with much of the conservative rhetoric of Bush and many fellow senators – he sighs as he lists agendas (tax cuts for the rich, banning gay marriage and flag burning) laid out by GOP leaders at the senators’ weekly party meeting. But Chafee was considering jumping ship for another reason: He wanted to get re-elected.

He reasoned it would be tough to run as a Republican in 2006. Chafee, the only Republican senator to vote against authorizing the war in Iraq in 2003, says he predicted then that as the war dragged on, support for it – and the Republican Party – would erode.

But on the other hand, Chafee knew two important bills – the federal highway bill and the military base realignment and closure bill – were coming up in a year. With Republicans in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, Chafee could deliver money and jobs to the state. Rhode Island would suffer if he left the party, and he didn’t want to anger constituents.

“I was in a great position to look out for Rhode Island,” he says. “In the end, Rhode Island did really well in the highway bill … and Rhode Island gained 500 jobs!” At the last remark, Chafee smiles and punches his fists in the air.

Still, Chafee needed advice about his political future, so he shared his dilemma with his younger brother.

” ‘You’re screwed,'” Chafee recalls his brother saying, albeit in stronger words.

Though staying Republican likely cost him the Senate seat his father, John Chafee, held for two decades before him, Chafee says he has no regrets about staying in the party.

After the election, Chafee hoped party leaders would view the Democratic landslide as a referendum to adopt a more moderate approach. He finally gave up and, with little fanfare, dropped his affiliation in July to become an independent. He says no one asked him about it until Saturday, when a Providence Journal reporter called him.

Four issues stood between Chafee and the GOP, he says: the environment, foreign relations, economics and personal liberty. But he says he wouldn’t join the Democratic Party today, either, because he believes it lacks strong leadership and blew its chance to stop the 2003 vote that authorized the war in Iraq.

Chafee’s move wasn’t unexpected – few politicians were surprised by his disaffiliation.

“The former senator is personally well-liked, well-regarded, and he always will be, but it is no surprise that having had a long, difficult struggle as a moderate with the more conservative wing of the party in Washington, he felt estranged from the party,” said Giovanni Cicione, the state Republican chairman, in a statement Monday. “But in light of his family’s long, well-respected history and affiliation with the Rhode Island Republican Party, this is an unfortunate outcome.”

Ethan Wingfield ’07, the chairman of the College Republican Federation of Rhode Island last year and the former executive director of Students for Chafee, also said it was “unfortunate” that Chafee had left the party, though he understood why.

“Over the last few years, the GOP has begun to stray from its conservative principles of fiscal responsibility, moral leadership and reducing the role that government plays in the lives of Americans,” Wingfield wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “Americans are generally conservative people, and to regain its appeal to Senator Chafee and the millions of other Americans, the party needs to get back to its roots.”

With the Senate and the Republican party now behind him, Chafee says he is enjoying his private life. Working at the Watson Institute, he is publishing articles and writing a book about his time in the Senate, which he hopes to publish as early as next spring. The time he used to spend at ceremonies and dedications as mayor of Warwick and senator he now shares with his family.

Chafee’s fellowship at Brown ends after this semester, and he’d like the University to ask him to return for another term, as they did after the spring semester.

Chafee’s name has also been tossed around as a possible candidate for a 2010 election, in the gubernatorial race or the mayoral race in Providence, where he recently moved. But Chafee, who says he loved being mayor of Warwick, declines to say whether he’s even considering running for those positions.

“It’s years away,” he says. “I have the luxury of enjoying my time away from politics.”

Professor of Political Science Darrell West says that if Chafee did decide to run, he’d be a popular candidate.

“People like him very much and respect him, so if he wants to run, I think he would have a future,” West says. He adds that if Chafee runs as an independent, “a three-way race would be advantageous for him because people think he did a generally good job, (but) got blamed for Bush’s shortcomings.”

Current Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, a liberal Republican who worked closely with Chafee when Avedisian was a city councilman and Chafee was mayor, says he believes Chafee would make an excellent candidate in the near future.

“He has a lot of offer to the state,” Avedisian says. “I think it would be shame to not take advantage of his great ability.”

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