The criticism came fast and hard for former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee’s presidential debate performance. Yet RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says this shouldn’t tarnish his family’s political legacy or his reputation for truth-telling.
From Washington County to Washington State, the reaction to Chafee’s bumbling debate appearance was swift. He became a quick punch-line for the late-night comics and drew brickbats from the political pundit class. The toughest critics said he made Rhode Island look foolish and dented the reputation of his late father, John Chafee, the revered former governor and U.S. senator.
Brandon Bell, Republican state chairman, said Chafee embarrassed Rhode Island. A Providence College political science professor compared Chafee to a drug addict, saying the former Warwick mayor, senator and governor needs an ``intervention’’ that would convince him to drop his presidential campaign.
Chafee’s campaign has baffled political experts. It looked like he decided to run on impulse, without considering the rudimentary rules of a White House quest.
While he has personal wealth, it isn’t nearly enough to compete in what has become, lamentably, a billionaires’ business. No one in his political circle has any experience or insight into presidential campaigning except his 2010 media strategist, Tad Devine. But Devine had already signed on with insurgent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has emerged as a plausible candidate.
Ok, so no money, no organization and no serious advisors adds up to…zero poll ratings. Top that off with a colossally poor showing in the Las Vegas CNN debate, and there is scant rationale for Chafee to continue his campaign.
Yet, Chafee said he got into the race to shine the light on the nation’s foreign policy failures, like the war in Iraq. We shouldn’t forget Chafee’s role as the only Republican senator to vote against that war in in 2002.
And we shouldn’t forget, that, unlike Hillary Clinton, Chafee did his homework on the most serious foreign policy issue of a generation. When Bush pushed insistently for war, Chafee requested a meeting with the CIA brass to examine the evidence against Saddam Hussein’s regime.
In his 2008 book, `Against the Tide,’ Chafee recounted the meeting.
``Sooner or later, I have to vote on this war, show me everything you have,’’ Chafee asked the CIA officials.
What Chafee discovered as the meeting droned on, was that the Bush administration had no evidence of the weapons of mass destruction attributed to Hussein’s regime. He recalls being shown one of the infamous aluminum tubes.
Chafee looked at the tube, and thought ``I can go buy one of these at Adler’s Hardware.’’
Chafee wasn’t surprised that Republicans got in line behind Bush – patronage, home-state programs and federal pork were at stake. But he was surprised at how fast Democrats folded, caught up in the post-September 11 blush of jingoism.
A flustered Chafee turned to an unnamed Democratic senator he trusted for an explanation. This senator told him: ``They are afraid the war will be over as fast as Gulf One. Few will die, the oil will flow and gasoline will cost 90-cents a gallon.’’
The Democratic senator who told him that in confidence is widely believes to have been Jack Reed, who also opposed the Iraq War. Chafee has never confirmed that Reed was the source and Reed has declined to confirm or deny it.
If you think Chafee isn’t very bright, how do you feel about Clinton’s vote for that war, which she has since said was a mistake?
At the debate, Clinton brushed aside Chafee’s criticism, saying President Barack Obama’s choice of her to be his secretary of state was proof of her good foreign policy judgment.
Chafee was also sharply criticized for what can only be called a moment of candor. When asked why he voted to approve controversial banking legislation in 1999 that loosened the regulation of banks, he said he was new in the senate, still grieving his father’s death and hadn’t adequately studied the topic.
It look and sounded terrible on television. Yet it may have been the most unvarnished honest moment of the evening. Only in presidential politics is telling the truth considered a gaffe.
Bernie Sanders gave Clinton a joking pass on the e-mail issue. Chafee tried to raise it, but Clinton curtly cut him off. Does she think her Republican opponent next fall is going to take `no’ for an answer?
As far as embarrassing Rhode Island, it appears as if Chafee’s critics have developed a serious case of political amnesia. Has Chafee ever embarrassed the Ocean State in the same manner as the parade of politicians who either landed in jail or made our state a national laughing stock. Think Buddy Cianci, Ed DiPrete, Joe Bevilacaqua, Brian Sarault, Gerry Martineau, John Celona, Tony Bucci, Antonio Almedia. And don’t forget our latest pol currently lodged in the federal pen at taxpayer expense, former House Speaker Gordon Fox.
Chafee, Jim Webb and Martin O’Malley, too, probably won’t make it to the prime time of the presidential sweepstakes. Chafee ought to drop out, but not because he is embarrassing the Ocean State. Too many others already wear that crown.
Nothing Chafee does in this quest will taint his father’s legacy in the same way that nothing Patrick Kennedy has written about his father’s drinking will dent Ted Kennedy’s Olympian career.
As far as harming Rhode Island - don’t you taxpayers wish that then-Gov. Don Carcieri had investigated 38 Studios finances with the same vigor as Chafee probed the rush to war in Iraq?
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ Blog at RIPR.org