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Q&A: Possible presidential hopeful Chafee eyes international influence

Former R.I. governor speaks on foreign policy, party shifts in months before potential clash with Clinton

Though he has not officially announced his intention to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 P’17 has already started to lay out a framework for his candidacy.

Chafee spoke with The Herald about his decision to consider running, the issues that drive him and what sets him apart from frontrunner Hillary Clinton.


The Herald: What was the timeline for your announcement of the presidential exploratory committee? Was there any particular event that set it in motion?

Chafee: No, just what’s happening around the world, and so a cumulative sequence of events. We saw the rise of ISIS, and some of the ramifications of bad decisions in the Middle East and North Africa led me, after I concluded my term as governor, to consider this run.


What is your motivation in running for president?

I think we can do better internationally. I think America’s been, as I say, acting with our biceps, not our brains, and making bad decisions that have major consequences for future generations.


What do you offer voters of either party?

It’s really three things: a record of accomplishments as a mayor, as a US Senator and as a governor; it’s also a vision — I have a clear vision of what I want to do not only internationally, but domestically; and, lastly, character. I’ve been in service for 30 years and there’s never been any questions about my ethics. Those three things: what I’ve accomplished, my vision for the future and my character. That’s what people should be basing their decisions on when they look at candidates, in my view.


In a recent interview with CNN, you attribute the leadership of President George W. Bush to your dissatisfaction with the Republican Party, although you have said in the past that you strongly supported his father. What was it that drew you to the party of President George H.W. Bush, and do you believe the party can ever return to that?

I made the decision to disaffiliate — leave — the Republican party based on my belief that we’re not going to go back to the old Republican Party that welcomed and embraced liberal social policies and had the intention of making sure we took care of the books. Now it’s completely flipped.  Now it’s totally fiscally irresponsible. The Republican Party — they don’t pay for what they buy, and they’re focused on social issues … I made the decision to leave the party after a lot of thought, exactly to that question: Will it ever come back? And I just don’t think it will. They call us Rockefeller Republicans. There’s no room for Rockefeller Republicans anymore.


You have brought foreign policy to the front of the discussion in the last couple of weeks, especially in reference to your Senate voting record. But it could be argued that, since your election as governor in 2010, you have not had much interaction with U.S. diplomacy. What experience do you bring to this area, particularly considering the rise of foreign policy issues in the Middle East and Russia?

In the Senate, I was on the Foreign Relations Committee. I chaired the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere and traveled throughout South America and know those issues fairly well. Then I chaired the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa subsequently, and I traveled throughout the Middle East, and I know the issues there. After I left the Senate, I spent two and a half years at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown. And then I was chosen to be on a board that worked in Ukraine — I think I made 12 trips to Ukraine. So yes, since I became governor I focused on state issues, but it’s not that long ago that I was involved in international issues, and I have a passion for them. Lastly, even as governor, they invited three governors to travel to Kuwait and Afghanistan, and of course I accepted.


In your announcement video, you praised President Barack Obama for reviving the economy. What specifically do you think he has done well, and how would you build off of that?

I was in the Senate when all of those Bush tax cuts were flying through that favored the wealthy, and I voted against all of them. I was concerned that they were going to jeopardize our economy, and they did. So Obama, when he came in, was very methodical. There was a mix of austerity and stimulus, and we’re seeing a recovery.  We’d all like it to be better and we’d like to close the income inequality gap, but at least we’re seeing recovery, and I give him credit for that.


Rhode Island is currently tied for the nation’s 10th highest unemployment rate and has struggled at attracting new businesses to create jobs. How did you tackle the economic downturn during your time as governor, and do you think Rhode Island’s situation in particular would prepare you well for the national economic recovery?

First of all, the facts are that when I took office, the unemployment rate was 11.4 (percent). And today— I think I take some credit even though I’m not in office, but it’s my policies, and it’s still my budget enforced until June 30 — the unemployment rate is 6.3. To answer your question — is this transferable to a national approach — absolutely. It’s a slow, methodical approach of investing in education, investing in infrastructure and, in my case as a governor, looking out for cities and towns. As a president, I would be making sure the states get their fair share. It worked in Rhode Island and I’m sure it would work nationally, whether it’s federal programs in education such as Head Start and Pell Grants … or an infrastructure and highway bill to keep our roads and bridges and dams and fiber optics and all of our infrastructure modernized.


President Obama has stirred some controversy with his use of executive orders to counteract a slow-moving Congress. As a former Senator, how would you work with, or around, Congress to get things done?

It’s very, very partisan. We all know that right now. But I still have friends in the Senate on both sides of the aisle, and it just takes hard work. When I was a mayor I had to work with my city council to get anything done. As governor, I had to work with the House and Senate here at the Statehouse in Rhode Island. You have to devote a lot of attention and do the hard work that’s necessary to get the programs through. I’ve done it. And I know it’s not easy, but it can be done.


This will be your first campaign running as a Democrat, as well as your first campaign focusing on non-Rhode Island voters. How will these factors affect your strategy? Do you have a sense of what that strategy will be yet?

I believe the issues are going to be important this campaign. My big issue is where we’re going in the world. Of course I want to take care of the economy and invest in education and infrastructure and take care of national issues, but I do think there’s going to be a vigorous debate about the conflicts that seem to be spreading, and what we can do to change that. I have the record — going against the Iraq War — and the passion to get us back to a more peaceful world. We’ve got to end these wars.


Hillary Clinton is already the favorite in the Democratic Party, as she was early in the race in 2008. Do you plan on running against her in any similar way to then-Senator Obama?

I do think, considering the magnitude of the Iraq War decision — it was 12 years ago in October of 2002 — and the magnitude of the consequences that we live with today, there’s going to be a major issue between me and Senator Clinton. We were both there in the Senate looking at the evidence and, considering the ramifications of that decision, she made the wrong decision. I don’t think she should be president, and I don’t think she should lead the Democratic Party. That decision has resulted in 4,000 American servicemen losing their lives — that’s more than 9/11 — and bipartisan estimates are saying six trillion dollars is the cost in the long term. Imagine what we could do with six trillion dollars. It’s a monumentally bad decision, and look at what’s happening with ISIS and Yemen. Even Senator Clinton, in her book, says it weakened our country’s standing in the world. She said that. She said it set back our strategic interests in the region — those are her words right from her book. So this is going to be a major issue for me.


The New York Times’ The Upshot recently ran an article saying that strong competition in the primary would not be good for Clinton, who, the author argues, will inevitably win the primary. How do you view your candidacy with regard to the Democratic Party as a unit that looks to win the upcoming election?

All this talk of inevitability is just nonsense. History shows us that Americans like an underdog, and frequently the frontrunner fails to win the nomination. That’s just media chatter. There’s a long way to go, and I expect a vigorous campaign.


When you were governor of Rhode Island, you joined four other Brown alums as leaders of US states. Do you think there’s anything about Brown that directs graduates toward public service or political office?

Yes, I do. The energy on the Brown campus translates well into involvement in positive activity. I absolutely believe that.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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