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Chafee's Long-Shot Presidential Quest

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Lincoln Chafee’s announcement that he is seriously considering a campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination brings to mind sports...

Lincoln Chafee’s announcement that he is seriously considering a campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential  nomination brings to mind sports broadcaster Al Michaels’ famous call from the USA hockey team’s upset victory over the USSR in the 1980 winter Olympics: Do you Believe in Miracles?

That’s pretty much what is would take for Chafee to move into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January 2017.

The 62-year old former Rhode Island governor and U.S. senator jumped into the presidential fray today with an exclusive 9 a.m. interview with Rhode Island Public Radio, then released an announcement video on his new campaign web site Chafee2016.com at 10 a.m.

Chafee showed up for an interview at Rhode Island Public Radio with just one aide, Kenny Alston, his former gubernatorial chief of staff.  Then Chafee, a former Warwick city council member and mayor of his home city, pulled out his I-pad, set it on the table and told a reporter, "I’ve got some video I want to show you.."

Chafee’s announcement stunned the political establishment, both in Rhode Island and nationally. As New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman put it, "with no advance warning, the Democratic race for president just got a surprise new contender."

Tad Devine, the veteran political consultant who engineered the 2010 Chafee campaign for governor,  said he too, was surprised by the news when a reporter informed him this morning, shortly before Chafee made his formal announcement via the Internet.

"That’s actually news to me," said Devine. "I’m not in the Chafee inside circle on this one."

Devine, a veteran of many Democratic presidential campaigns, including those of Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry, has been working with the nascent campaign of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the left-leaning Vermont senator.

"Listen,  I love the guy and I don’t want to be against the guy but I’m committed to Bernie," said Devine, who is headed to Burlington this weekend for meetings with Sanders and his circle of close supporters and aides.

"I wish he and Bernie would join forces. We would like his support and we could use a governor," said Devine. "He and Bernie are similar on some issues; they both voted against the Iraq War."

Devine also said that Chafee, an early 2008 supporter of then-Sen. Barack Obama, has "no love lost for Hillary Clinton" who supported President George W. Bush’s failed Iraq policies. Chafee said yesterday that Clinton's vote for that war ought to disqualify her from being the 2016 Democratic nominee, a campaign trope Obama used against her in his successful run to the 2008 nomination.

Chafee knows he is a serious long-shot. He told RIPR that he has no illusions. "I’m not naïve about the task ahead of me."

He says he plans to spend a lot of time in the early voting states of Iowa, which holds the first caucus, and New Hampshire, which hosts the leadoff primary. Hillary Clinton is the obvious favorite, but she stumbled in 2008 in Iowa, lost the caucuses to then-Illinois U.S. Sen. Barack Obama. On the Democratic side, the Iowa event is dominated by party activists, many of them dovish on foreign policy, which may give Chafee an opening. New Hampshire voters are famously independent; running for president in the Granite State often resembles more a campaign for governor, or even state representative, than president of the U.S.

"I'm going to meet and work with the local Democrats, in Iowa and especially in New Hampshire" said Chafee.

Candidates have to survive the gauntlet of New Hampshire’s retail campaign culture, working the diners, union halls and malls. And standing for hours in drafty high-school gymnasiums taking endless questions from voters who run the gamut from single-issue advocates to the snow plow driver, town librarian and town crank.

No Rhode Island political figure in modern times has mounted a serious campaign for president. "Rhode Island has so regularly been overshadowed by Massachusetts that no one from Rhode Island has even come close to a competitive presidential campaign," says  Garrison Nelson of the University of Vermont, a political science professor and expert in New England politics.

Both the Iowa and New Hampshire processes winnow the field of candidates. For Chafee to have any prayer in either state, he must quickly raise money and put together organizations to turn out votes. If he can’t gain any traction over the next two to three months, he won’t be a serious candidate.

It is difficult to envision Chafee as a later-day Don Quixote, a la, Dennis Kucinich, the liberal Ohio gadfly who ran for the nation’s highest office flying coach and driving around New Hampshire in a rented van.

Chafee’s asset is that he comes off as unvarnished and genuine, a straight-shooter and politician of conviction. Sometimes that has worked for him – such as in his opposition to Iraq and his you-know-where-I-stand tropes on such issues as the death penalty (opposed) and gay rights (in favor). At other times, it has estranged him from the political mainstream. When he took over as governor, Rhode Island was scraping recession’s bottom and the quirky Chafee often spoke about issues that were not related to the economy, which was uppermost in the average voter’s agenda.

Devine recalls trying in vain to get Chafee to stick with an economic  message and advised not to veer off into such topics as the death penalty. "He’s a guy who marches to his own drummer," says Devine.

That element in Chafee has given him a reputation, deserved or not, among political observers and operatives of being barely coachable. It is one thing in politics to stand on conviction but quite another to ignore public opinion and polling when the electorate is going the other way. With some constituencies, this element of his persona doomed his governorship and damaged him politically, even after he switched to the Democratic Party midway through his term.

He also had a fraught relationship with some in the state’s business community and battled with Rhode Island’s shrill, right-wing radio talk show hosts. And he battled with the editors of the Providence Journal, the state’s largest newspaper over tax issues and a beer party his underage son threw at his summer home.

Chafee has had a long career in Rhode Island politics. A scion of a storied blue-blood Yankee New England family, he worked his way up the political ladder, starting as a delegate to the 1985 state Constitutional Convention, then winning election as a Warwick city council member and mayor of the state’s second-largest city. He was a sitting Warwick mayor when his father, then U.S. John Chafee, died in office in 1999 and then-Gov. Lincoln Almond appointed the younger Chafee to the seat. The next year, he resoundingly defeated U.S. Rep. Robert Weygand to win a full six-year term in the senate.

In those days Chafee was a moderate Republican, as was his father. But as the party lurched rightward and was taken over by politicians from the Sunbelt and the states of the Old Confederacy, Chafee was increasingly outside the mainstream of a GOP dominated by hard-right conservatives.

The breaking point came when George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000. Chafee questioned the rightward drift of the party on tax cuts, environmental policies and, most prominently, Iraq, when he became the lone Republican senator to vote against authorizing the Bush Administration to prosecute the Iraq War.

The war came home to roost against Chafee when he ran for reelection as a Republican in 2006 against Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, another scion of an old WASP family. (Chafee’s father and Whitehouse’s father were roommates at Yale University). The war was unpopular in Rhode Island and it hurt Chafee, even though he voted against it. The Whitehouse campaign was able to yoke Chafee to the national GOP and the Republican-controlled senate.

Much the same issue had defeated his father John Chafee a generation earlier, when he challenged Democrat Claiborne Pell for a senate seat. Chafee lost to Pell in 1972 largely on the issue of the Vietnam War, which was not popular in New England.

Chafee switched his political affiliation from Republican to independent, or unaffiliated in the patois of Rhode Island politics, and became a visiting professor at Brown University, his alma mater. He also wrote a book denouncing the Bush Administration and startled many readers by writing that state voters did the right thing in tossing him to the curb over the Iraq War, a rare moment of candor  for a losing political figure.

He made a comeback by running as an independent for governor in 2010, winning a race with four serious candidates that resembled a primary more than a general election. He got only about 36 percent of the vote, but it was enough.

He took over a state deeply enmeshed in the recession, with the nation’s highest unemployment rate. The previous governor, Republican Don Carcieri, who carried Red State political positions, left him with a mess, especially an ill-fated $75 million taxpayer-backed deal on retired baseball star Curt Schilling’s dream of a video game company, which went bankrupt, and a river of red ink in the state budget.

Chafee balanced the budget and ushered in a same-sex marriage law, and he worked with then-state treasurer Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, on an overhaul of the state public employee pension system.

The first task for Chafee will be to become a serious candidate and get beyond the "Lincoln Who?" stage. And he must raise serious money in a presidential cycle that will dwarf all others. All you need to know about this is that Republican Ted Cruz’s campaign raised $31 million in a week.

Chafee's Long-Shot Presidential Quest
Chafee's Long-Shot Presidential Quest