So Lincoln Chafee has become the first Rhode Islander to seek a major party nomination for president. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay on why Chafee must step up his game quickly to be a factor in the 2016 presidential sweepstakes.
Love him or hate him, you have to acknowledge that Chafee is a politician of conviction and deeply held views about what’s wrong with the country. Throughout his long career in Rhode Island politics, most honest voters would agree Chafee was on the right side of many issues.
From his opposition to the disastrous Iraq War, to his stand closer to home against the 38 Studios fiasco and his championing of same sex marriage, Chafee has been a man of his word. A staunch environmentalist, he was been concerned about climate change long before it became fashionable.
He has been forthright in answering questions from reporters and voters, which is more than you can say for Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, she of the golden resume and big money connections.
And it is easy to contrast Chafee’s view of the Iraq mess with Clinton’s support of a war that has claimed more than 4,000 American lives and those of many, many more Iraqis and destabilized a huge swath of the Middle East.
In his announcement speech, Chafee never mentioned Clinton by name but had tough words for those who supported the Iraq foray.
``It’s bad enough that the so-called neocons, most of whom had never experienced the horror of war, were so gung ho,’’ Chafee said as he kicked off his candidacy. ``Worse yet, they didn’t have the guts to argue their points straight up to the American people. They knew there were no weapons of mass destruction but wanted their war badly enough to purposely deceive us.’’
He also said it is critical that the integrity of ``secretary of state never be questioned,’’ an oblique salvo at Clinton, whose controversy- filled tenure as the nation’s top foreign policy leader has stuck to her candidacy like chewing gum to a shoe.
Chafee obviously wants to project an image of truth-telling, but his campaign opening was also notable for the quirky stands that have frustrated his allies for years. Switching the country to the metric system may well be a good idea, but it isn’t likely to resonate with the Ethanol-addled farmers who populate Iowa’s first-in-the nation caucus.
There are now four candidates for the Democratic nomination – Chafee, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s left-leaning senator, and Clinton. Two of these aspirants, Chafee and Sanders, have never run for anything as a Democrat. It is difficult to envision O’Malley, despite his ample political skills, gathering such an important Democratic constituency as black voters in the aftermath of the riots in Baltimore, where he was once mayor.
Sanders, Chafee and O’Malley have no serious chances unless Clinton falters. But at least Sanders and O’Malley are organizing efforts that would put them in a position to harvest votes if the front-runner stumbles.
O’Malley is moving his feet around Iowa and is already purchasing television time. Sanders is being advised by Rhode Island native Tad Devine, a nationally-recognized consultant who has been marinated in Democratic presidential politics since Walter Mondale’s candidacy in 1984. (Devine has also worked for Chafee; he made the great television ads that vaulted Chafee to a narrow victory in the 2010 R.I. gubernatorial campaign).
Sanders is on track to raise between $40 to $50 million in campaign money that will be crucial to competing in the first four primary and caucus states – the Iowa and Nevada caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. Iowa and Nevada are retail states where meeting voters one-on-one is crucial. New Hampshire is also a meet-and-greet state, but a serious race in the Granite State requires money for television, especially in the expensive Boston market that reaches the vote-rich southern New Hampshire communities along the Massachusetts border and in the Interstate 93 corridor.
No presidential primary voter or caucus-goer is going to care a fig about the silly issues that limned the head-in-the sand Chafee coverage of so many in Rhode Island’s media and talk show circles, such as what he called a Statehouse Christmas evergreen or the underage beer parties attended by his son and the son of U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. Or whether a former lieutenant governor who is a Harvard Law School graduate is qualified to be a state judge.
With his focus on income inequality, the fiery, lefty Sanders is drawing overflow crowds in these early states. So far, Chafee not so much.
Chafee has not staffed up, engaged in serious fund-raising or built organizations in the early states. Sanders already has an email and social media presence with hundreds of thousands of followers and is well-known in New Hampshire, which, of course, is next door to Vermont.
At this point, Chafee can be taken seriously only if he puts together a credible campaign. If he doesn’t, he will be little more than another Dennis Kucinich, the former Ohio congressman who flew coach and traveled around New Hampshire in a rented van. Sleeping on supporters’ couches is something college kid volunteers do, not real candidates.
Chafee gave a fine opening speech. Now he must follow it up with action or he will be nothing more than a Harold Stassen-like footnote to next year’s presidential campaign.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at out `On Politics’ Blog at RIPR.org