Lincoln Chafee, the independent Governor of Rhode Island, is in trouble. Deep trouble, in fact, electorally. In the most recent PPP poll of the Ocean State, Gov. Chafee didn’t manage to receive above 35% of the vote, and in one iteration received only 20% of the vote. He is probably among the most endangered incumbents in the country in 2014. A Chafee loss – barring a political comeback in 2020 for a Senate seat if Sen. Jack Reed retired – something that would be difficult anyway – would be the denouement of a quite storied political career and a political tradition that is on its last legs in a nation which is more and more retreating behind hidebound ideological disputes.
This tradition is one of moderate leadership which is more interested in traditional patrician ideas of consensus, social unity and conservation, in the tradition of Roosevelt and Lincoln, than in the modern neoliberal approach of Grover Norquist and Jim DeMint. This tradition – espoused by the men who used to be the epitome of American government – is dying. It faces its most serious, sustained threat from the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party, even in traditionally moderate New England, where Maine Republicans expressed voted at their state convention to leave the United Nations. But it also faces a threat from ambitious Democrats in places like Maryland’s Eighth Congressional District, where in 2002 Chris Van Hollen, now the ranking member on the Budget committee, defeated longtime moderate Republican incumbent Connie Morella. It also faces a structural threat from the near-impossibility of organising an independent party. The campaigns of Ross Perot and Americans Elect were an instructive lesson in the failures of independent politicians in the United States. The story of Lincoln Chafee’s political career is really a microcosm of the development of American politics – the decline of moderation and the rise of extremism, the growth of a disaffected politics and the fall of bipartisanship. But why? What about his history and politics makes him representative of a wider change in American society? To understand that, we have to go back to 1962, and the election of John Chafee to the office that the younger Chafee now holds.
John Chafee won a narrow election upset in 1962 against the incumbent Democratic governor, and immediately began implementing policies based on traditional liberal Republican ideas – investing in healthcare and education whilst preserving the environment. Chafee, who won heavily in his next two races (this was a time when many gubernatorial races were fought, like House elections are now, every two years) was exceedingly popular, winning the highest percentage of votes cast for a Republican governor in Rhode Island history. But the demands of government meant that Chafee, who had campaigned against a state income tax in previous elections, switched to supporting a state income tax. This change, along with a withdrawal from campaigning because of his daughter’s sudden death, led to his defeat. This was at a time when the fiscal problems of the United States were deepening (famously, New York City nearly fell in to bankruptcy) but there was also an increasing anti-tax movement developing in state politics – less than ten years after his defeat, for example, California approved a law by referendum that capped property taxes significantly. Chafee’s defeat, then, came at the start of a rise in the power and influence of Republican conservatism, which Chafee had fought when Barry Goldwater had run for President in 1964, as well on other, smaller fronts since then. This culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan, a Goldwater supporter in 1964, as well as the Republican Revolution in the Senate.
Whilst Chafee enjoyed political success over the next ten years, serving as President Nixon’s Navy Secretary and winning a Senate seat in 1976, it came at a time of increasing isolation for colleagues who subscribed to Chafee’s brand of patrician politics. Consider this: in 1977, Chafee’s first full year in the Senate, there were 11 Republican Senators who received a score of 40 or above from Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal interest group, which means they had voted in a liberal way a significant amount of the time. Some of the scores were much higher. In 1998, Chafee’s last full year in the Senate, there were only four Senators who scored that highly – none of whom are in the Senate today. In 2006, Lincoln Chafee’s last full year in the Senate, there were only three. The decline of these bipartisan and moderate politicians is one of the reasons Washington faces such dysfunction today.
In the health care debate, for example, what we saw was a Democratic president proposing a health care system that was very similar to the one implemented in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney which, in turn, was very similar to the one proposed by John Chafee in 1994. If Lincoln Chafee had been in the Senate, it is likely he would have voted for the health care bill and given cover for other Republicans – such as Olympia Snowe, who voted yes to the health care bill in committee – to also defect, allowing for a bill with greater foundational support and a more wide-reaching appeal. Given the internecine warfare over the bill and the bad blood it created, a more moderate bill would have given cover to centrist Democrats, achieved many of the same objectives and preserved a greater sense of harmony in the Senate, allowing for more compromise with some of the more traditional members of the Senate, although the rise of polarisation still would have been too much for some compromises.
John Chafee died in 1999, and Lincoln Chafee – who had been preparing a campaign to succeed his father, who was retiring – was appointed to the Senate. At the time, he was serving as Mayor of Warwick. When in the Senate, he quickly established himself as a natural successor to his father – acting as a more liberal conscience to a Presidency, that of George W. Bush, which often seemed to be more interested in following conservative orthodoxy than governing the country. That’s why he voted against both iterations of the Bush tax cuts, as well as the Iraq war, reflecting a more traditional approach, popular previously amongst New England Republicans, favouring budgetary stability over smaller government. But he was one of very few Republicans to vote against these measures, which have blown open the deficit and debt. Indeed, he was the only Republican vote against the Iraq War. While these measures were in keeping with his principles, it was perhaps inevitable that, in the heightened political environment that pervaded the second term of the Bush Administration, the younger Chafee would face a primary challenge.
John Chafee had never faced a serious primary challenge, never one that had imperilled his career. Lincoln Chafee, on the other hand, was a victim of the times, times in which politics had become nationalised. Fewer people split tickets now. Parties are less tolerant of dissenters, and it’s more important to have a unified caucus than all the varying components of the electorate that you are supposed to govern on behalf of. Steve Laffey, the Republican Mayor of Cranston and significantly to the right of Chafee, campaigned against the Senator’s positions on President Bush’s nominees, abortion, and other policies such as government spending. Laffey represented the Ronald Reagan Republican party, conservative and unafraid of supply-side reforms which cut taxes and wanted to reduce the size of government, and one which reflected the desires of the Bush Administration and the base in the Deep South more than the voters of Rhode Island. This primary, which rated national media attention, was a lot more competitive than the Democratic primary, which helped Chafee eke out an eight-point win. Ultimately, however, and despite a sparkling 63% approval rating (something most Senators would kill for), Chafee lost to the Democratic candidate by six points. Chafee’s loss was mainly down to the unpopularity of Republicans at the time – it was recognised that Chafee had carried on his father’s legacy and built his own reputation as a reasonable centrist, but the nationalisation of the race, and the knife-edge nature of the Senate majority at that time (had Chafee held his seat, the Senate would have been tied), coupled with a desire to punish the deeply unpopular Bush Administration, led to Mr. Chafee’s defeat. He left the Republican Party shortly after, in 2007; was one of a handful of former Republicans to endorse President Obama; and ran for governor in 2010, winning narrowly after the Democratic candidate imploded after Obama stayed neutral, which helped Mr. Chafee.
Now he stares defeat in the face. His approval ratings are awful, Rhode Island suffering badly from the economic downturn and facing budgetary problems at a state and local level. Indeed, one article in the Washington Post demonstrates the desperate times that Rhode Island is in, with the town of Woonsocket kept afloat by the influx of food stamp money. As Governor, Chafee has kept up his brand of centrist, fiscally responsible politics, raising taxes (and campaigning on doing so) whilst producing a surplus and slowly dragging Rhode Island from the brink. But this still isn’t enough, and Rhode Island still faces serious problems, with a reputation as an anti-business state. Chafee is facing defeat – and potentially coming third to Democratic and Republican candidates – because he has been unable, despite his clear efforts (admitted even by his opponents) to fix the significant problems the Ocean State has. He will undoubtedly campaign on progress made and saying that he needs more time, but it may not be enough. He may choose to join the Democratic Party, having been wooed by national leaders.
Both of these developments would be disappointing. Politics thrives when it has independent voices advocating for higher principles than those of party. If Chafee joins the Democratic Party, he may just become another mainstream Democrat. If he is defeated, his brand of traditional, patrician Republicanism, now more often found amongst the few independent politicians, is likely dead. That brand, fought for his father on all fronts – education, health care, the environment – and fought for by Chafee himself, has an important place in American politics generally and Republican politics specifically, as it moves further and further in to a divisive, confrontational conservatism which is insensitive to the needs of many people in the United States who do not form part of its base. The Republican Party needs to rediscover the approach which produced many talented, moderate politicians who built prosperity, conserved the land, and gave rights and freedoms to a whole new generation of Americans. It can’t do that without the inheritors of the tradition, the Chafee tradition, which was once a dominant part of politics in New England and beyond.