His announcement packed a punch. Few saw it coming. Now, two weeks after former R.I. Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 P’17 declared that he was forming an exploratory committee to examine a run for the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nomination and then announced his candidacy during an appearance on CNN, questions linger. While clearly Chafee seems to have made up his mind on whether or not to run — why not just launch a campaign a la Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, skipping over the exploratory committee aperitif — I’m still scratching my head about the motives behind a Chafee candidacy.
Make no mistake, this column is not a direct critique of the recent column by Brown Students for Chafee. But I disagree with Brown Students for Chafee in that I believe this candidate at this time would not be an appropriate addition to the exclusive list of 44 who have called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home.
While Chafee touts his “Fresh Ideas for America,” his announcement video is hardly refreshing. He immediately launches an attack on Republicans, stating that “when the Republicans were last in power, they left the economy in shambles,” countering that “over the last six years, President Obama has led admirably” and insisting that Obama has “revived our economy.” Chafee makes no bold policy proposals but instead alludes that he anticipates sharing broader thoughts with the public in the weeks and months ahead.
The aesthetics of the announcement are stuffy at best. Flanked by overflowing bookcases, Chafee appears to be caught in a corner of a library, waxing on about his presidential aspirations. His tone is stiflingly calculated and remarkably hollow as he declares “campaigns are the time for debates, about the vision for our future and for voters to assess the character and experience of those offering ideas.” Smooth words, but that statement holds absolutely no substance. Even the choice of his tie, a navy and green stripe, harkens to his conservative persona with a slight emphasis for the green things in life, perhaps.
Chafee’s positions are loose, at best. In a recent interview with The Herald, when pressed with questions outlining international influence, Chafee provided only brief talking points lacking in substantive originality. Asked why he wants to run for president, Chafee asserted that Americans have been “acting with our biceps, not our brains.”
Talking about where the international community stands, with a litany of crises from ISIS to Iran, Chafee centered his viewpoint on one issue, explaining, “I have the record — going against the Iraq War — and the passion to get us back to a more peaceful world.” Haunted by the ghosts of administrations past, Chafee standing on his vote against the Iraq War in 2002 does not constitute a foreign policy. Further pressed about a primary contest against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chafee described Clinton’s pro-Iraq War vote as a “major issue” and insisted that it will be a topic of debate. As refreshing a campaign as Chafee claims to run, his rhetoric is centered around American politics already a decade old. Perhaps he has found a Democratic alternative to when Republicans habitually reference Ronald Reagan in debate?
While Chafee was slow to disclose any sort of substantive policy outline differentiating his campaign from others, he does have a unique characteristic that no other candidate in the race holds: a history of different party affiliations. Chafee switched his affiliation from Independent to Democrat in 2013, after having remained an Independent since leaving the Republican Party in 2007. Supporters such as Brown Students for Chafee maintain this is simply the result of Chafee’s consistency in principles. The question that remains is, will this consistency lead to future changes in alliances, or will Chafee’s philosophical reticence manifest itself in a stubborn president?
I may be the only Brunonian willing to ask this question — in print — but what is Chafee truly seeking from his candidacy? Clinton is to the Democratic Party what inevitable GOP presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is to the Republican Party: the formidable candidate. While the perennial question of “How will you face Jeb?” envelopes current and soon-to-be GOP candidates, the question for Chafee is, “How will you face Clinton?”
I am not talking about catchy soundbites or differing policy positions, though soon-to-be long-shot GOP candidate and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina possesses both of those; she also boasts better odds of capturing the presidency than Chafee does. I am talking about financial power. I am talking about facing off against the financial war chest that is the Clinton campaign. How does Chafee, who can only seem to afford a single, long-take announcement video, compete with the Democratic Party’s candidate-in-waiting?
No presidential candidate walks into the limelight without a Plan B. The 2016 election season has barely opened, and at this point in the 2008 presidential cycle, then-Senator Obama was hardly a consideration for the nomination. But surely Obama had to have other plans in the event that his candidacy would fail. What could Chafee be thinking? A cabinet position? Ambassadorship? Vice President Chafee?
Leading a campaign of fresh ideas, Chafee is too tied to the past in his rhetoric. Quick to dig up the skeletons of yesteryear, Chafee may just be the cheerleader another candidate — announced or in waiting — needs to secure the nomination. His payment would come in the form of political junkets, of some form.
Speculation is addicting — perhaps I have just watched one too many episodes of House of Cards.
Ian Kenyon GS is an MPA candidate with the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions. He is happy to see a Brunonian in the big contest and can continue the debate at email@example.com.