PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When Gov. Lincoln Chafee left office last fall after four years of abysmal approval ratings, there was lots of speculation in Rhode Island about what he would do next.
It’s safe to say no one guessed the right answer: run for president.
Chafee’s White House bid has hardly set the world on fire, with multiple polls listing his support as an asterisk rather than a percentage, and the RealClearPolitics average currently putting him at 0.3%. But he’s done enough to make it into this evening’s initial Democratic primary debate, which means the nation is going to get a closer look at the quirky politician Rhode Island knows so well.
With that in mind, here are five things to expect from the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat at tonight’s debate, which starts at 8:30 p.m. on CNN.
• He’s got a very unique way of talking. Lincoln Chafee’s speaking style – halting, discursive, deadpan – has been the bane of Rhode Island interviewers for years. (He is the only politician I’ve ever interviewed who will let you get a full sentence of your next question out before he jumps back in to add another thought to his previous answer – not because he’s filibustering, but because he just thought of it.) That could pose a challenge to CNN’s moderators if it takes them by surprise. Chafee is actually somewhat hard to rattle, too – he takes just about every question in stride, often seeming preternaturally calm. In that sense he’s a little like a liberal Ben Carson – though without the high support from voters.
• He’ll probably criticize Hillary Clinton a lot. Lincoln Chafee really, really dislikes the Clintons. He thinks they’re too hawkish on foreign policy and, in at least some ways, too moderate on economic policy. He’s lobbed grenades at Hillary Clinton since the day he kicked off his campaign, knocking her for everything from her Iraq war vote to her private email server to foreign Clinton Foundation donations. (And he probably hasn’t forgotten that unlike Barack Obama, Bill Clinton came to Rhode Island twice in 2010 to campaign against Chafee when he was running for governor as an independent.) Chafee’s anti-Clinton animus should make for some juicy moments for the pundits – see the next item for more on that – but it may not endear him to rank-and-file Democratic primary voters, nearly 80% of whom view Clinton favorably. It could also be a contrast with Bernie Sanders, who has shied away from direct attacks on Clinton.• He’ll probably bring up his Iraq vote a lot. Lincoln Chafee’s defining moment in public life came in 2002, when he was the only Republican U.S. senator to vote against authorizing the Iraq war. It gave him a reputation for independent thinking and was a key reason – though far from the only one – for his later departure from the GOP (whose senior statesman in Rhode Island was for many years his father, the late U.S. Sen. John Chafee). Thirteen years after his Iraq vote Chafee still brings it up to defend himself on other issues, citing it just last month when questioned about his handling of the failed state-backed game company 38 Studios. (“Give me credit,” he said; “as with the Iraq war, I was right.”) Chafee has long criticized Hillary Clinton in unsparing terms for her vote on Iraq, writing in his memoir: “Helping a rogue president start an unnecessary war should be a career-ending lapse of judgment, in my view.” But he’ll hardly have the Iraq issue to himself on stage this evening – Bernie Sanders voted against the war, too, and Jim Webb was a vocal critic of it; Clinton herself now calls her vote “a mistake.”
• He’s very liberal on some issues, moderate on others. While Lincoln Chafee was a Republican U.S. senator less than a decade ago, even then he was out of step with many in the GOP. His foreign policy positions these days are to the left of many in the Democratic Party, including President Obama – at a recent forum Chafee backed lifting sanctions against Russia, supported keeping Syria President Bashar al-Assad in power, and expressed mixed feelings about opening Cuba up to world trade. On domestic policy, though, Chafee isn’t necessarily in step with Democratic activists on the left. He’s a big fan of balanced budgets, for example, and he is backing President Obama’s controversial TPP trade agreement. (It will be interesting to see how he contrasts on domestic policy with Bernie Sanders, who’s obviously done a much better job connecting with the left wing of the party base so far.) In general, Chafee takes pride in articulating positions he thinks other politicians are too cowardly to embrace.
• He’s probably going to say something surprising. Because he almost always does. The national media got its first taste of Lincoln Chafee’s out-of-left-field streak during his kickoff speech, when the newly minted candidate came out strongly for a switch to the metric system – which became such a punchline that he had to stop talking about it. During Chafee’s time as governor he found himself embroiled in fights many other politicians would have avoided, on issues ranging from the death penalty to the name of the state’s yuletide spruce. He usually says what he thinks as soon as he thinks it, a trait that has endeared him to some while giving ulcers to his staff. But the other candidates should be warned, too: the guy doesn’t mind throwing a verbal punch, and he’s not inclined to hold back when he decides to do so.Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi