PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – In October 1999, U.S. Sen. John Chafee was laid to rest amid the pomp and circumstance befitting a beloved statesman. President Clinton and roughly half of Chafee’s Senate colleagues traveled to Rhode Island to laud the 77-year-old as a Republican pragmatist, a gentleman, and a war hero.
Fast-forward exactly 16 years to this month, when Chafee’s son and Senate successor, Lincoln, took the stage in Las Vegas in a debate for the Democratic presidential nomination – and wound up ridiculed in mocking terms that were likely never used about his father.
The fallout from Tuesday night’s debate has former aides and allies privately despairing about the damage they think Lincoln Chafee is doing to his late father’s reputation, not to mention his own. And it’s led local observers to reflect on the rapid deterioration of the once-solid Chafee brand in the years since Lincoln Chafee was ousted from the U.S. Senate in 2006.
Multiple former aides to John and Lincoln Chafee declined to comment on the record about the latter’s presidential run, with many of them still deeply loyal to the senior Chafee. Almost none of them are involved in Lincoln Chafee’s shoestring presidential campaign, which seems to be largely piloted by the candidate himself, with assistance from two of his most loyal staffers, Debbie Rich and Jonathan Stevens.
“This has become some sort of cathartic exercise for him to attain some sort of vindication for the manner in which politics has treated Linc Chafee,” Bill Fischer, a veteran Democratic operative in Rhode Island, told WPRI.com. “And in the end it’s looking quite self-absorbed, and he’s not prepared for the stage. He is not prepared for the stage. He doesn’t have the staff around him to do this.”
“I think he’s become a caricature,” M. Charles Bakst, the retired longtime Providence Journal political columnist, told WPRI.com. “I’m not sure how to define that caricature, but whatever weaknesses people saw in him as governor, now he’s just become a caricature of that. And it’s sad, in a way. He’s not doing himself a favor.”
“And I like him,” added Bakst, who backed Chafee for governor in 2010.
With no endorsements, no organization, barely any staff and relatively little money, there’s no reason to think Chafee’s presidential campaign is going to become a more successful enterprise anytime soon. But those who know Chafee well say there’s also little reason to think all that will cause him to formally pull the plug – particularly if he keeps getting into the debates.
And it’s unclear who, if anyone, could convince the increasingly isolated Chafee otherwise – despite the efforts of even CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who warned him on national television Wednesday he could “wind up looking silly.”
“Anyone who thinks that you could intervene with Governor Chafee and convince him to stop his bid for the presidency obviously hasn’t met him,” Christine Hunsinger, who served as Chafee’s spokeswoman during much of his 2011 to 2015 term as governor, told WPRI.com.
Fischer said former aides have privately told him that Chafee often served as his own sounding board as governor, shutting out alternative opinions from advisers and other allies.
“He is marching to the beat of Lincoln Chafee – not even his own drummer, he’s marching to the beat of Lincoln Chafee,” Fischer said. “There is no senior staff or significant apparatus right now, and even when he had that in the governor’s office, it was clear.”
In Fischer’s view, that is part of why it’s difficult to judge how long Chafee will continue his quixotic pursuit of the White House. “This has nothing to do with the size of his war chest, his ranking in the polls – this is a pursuit of the recognition that he’s right,” he said.
‘I don’t think anybody is surprised’
A word that comes up frequently when discussing Chafee is “stubborn.” The core of his political identity is that he makes a judgment call, often an unpopular one, and stands by it – whether the subject is the inadvisability of the Iraq war or the prudence of a $75 million state-backed loan to a video-game company.
“I think Governor Chafee has had a guiding principle in his world, which is to be true to himself and to tell the truth as he sees it, and to do that in situations where it may not be to his benefit,” Hunsinger said. “And I think Tuesday night that’s exactly what you saw. … I don’t think anybody is surprised by his performance in the debate. He has been saying many of those things for years.”
For Chafee, 62, the benefit of that has been staying on what he views as the moral high ground. But his day-to-day approach has had a devastating impact on his public standing – and the Chafee brand – over recent years.
John Chafee served in Rhode Island elected office almost continuously from 1957 to 1999, managing to win election after election despite the state’s heavily Democratic lean. The final Brown University poll that measured John Chafee’s approval rating, taken in June 1999, put it at 67%.
“You cannot imagine how popular and solid a guy he was,” Bakst said.
“John Chafee was a model public servant,” Michael Ryan, a former aide to the elder Chafee, told WPRI.com. “He was somebody who gave his all, who was always open to new ideas and ideas that were different from his own, and that was part of the success he enjoyed.”
John Chafee’s retirement – and Lincoln Chafee’s candidacy to succeed him – had already been announced when the elder Chafee died in October 1999. Gov. Lincoln Almond, a Republican and Chafee ally, named Lincoln Chafee as interim senator, giving him a crucial leg up in the 2000 U.S. Senate race – the only statewide general election Chafee ever won with a majority of the vote.
It was always clear that Lincoln Chafee – who moved to Montana and Canada to shoe horses after graduating from Brown University, before returning and eventually becoming Warwick mayor – was different from his father. “Lincoln has always been sort of an unusual duck – I wouldn’t call him an odd duck, but an unusual duck,” Bakst said.
Chafee’s seven-year U.S. Senate career was marked by an increasing estrangement from the Bush-era Republican Party, most notably over the Iraq war. Chafee has long made clear he sees his vote against the invasion as his defining moment in public life – and the votes by Hillary Clinton and others in favor of it as an epochal failure of judgment.
“I did my homework,” Chafee said with a flash of anger during one of his better moments in Tuesday night’s debate.
Chafee fought off a conservative challenger in the 2006 Republican U.S. Senate primary, but was defeated in the fall election by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, who successfully argued that Chafee’s policy apostasies were less important than his vote for a GOP majority leader. Whitehouse’s victory was all the more extraordinary – and frustrating for Chafee – considering an exit poll showed 63% of voters approved of Chafee’s job performance on the same day they voted him out.
“I don’t think anybody thought, ‘Oh good, we finally got rid of that lousy Lincoln Chafee,'” Bakst said. “But people were just fed up with the war, and Whitehouse was very big on that issue. … A lot of it had to do with being a Republican or a Democrat.”
Fischer said he thinks Chafee’s difficult governorship and head-scratching presidential run all relate back to how he processed that defeat.
“I think we’re talking here about nine years of resentment that’s built up since that Senate loss, with the press and with his own internal frustration of how voters perceive him,” Fischer said. “He can’t reconcile it.”
“To walk away from that, to walk away from that defeat, I think is the beginnings of some internal bitterness that continued to manifest and evolve throughout his tenure as governor,” Fischer said.
‘There’s got to be more than that’
Still, WPRI 12 political analyst and pollster Joe Fleming noted that Chafee’s high approval rating on the day of the 2006 election shows his public standing in Rhode Island was still high after seven years in statewide office.
“The Chafee brand really started to change greatly when he became governor,” Fleming said. “I think up until then people still had a fairly positive impression of John Chafee and Lincoln Chafee. But once he became governor, he never really related to the voters.”
Chafee won the governor’s office as an independent in 2010 with just 36% of the vote but strong labor support. One of his most effective campaign commercials that fall – titled “My Father” – was in part a tribute to John Chafee. “The biggest lesson I learned from my father was to always tell the truth, and trust the people,” Chafee said in the ad.
It was mostly downhill for Chafee after he took office; his job approval rating was just under 30% in a WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll conducted in November 2013, two months after he abandoned plans to try and seek a second term. He had switched to the Democratic Party earlier in the year.
Chafee appeared increasingly bitter during his time as governor, frequently complaining about how the media covered his job performance and a lack of sympathy for his proposals.
He got off on the wrong foot with a proposal to expand the sales tax to household essentials that was quickly shot down by the General Assembly. He also found himself in multiple headline-grabbing controversies that did little to boost his public standing, including the controversy over calling Rhode Island’s State House spruce a “holiday tree” and his long fight to avoid capital punishment for a convicted murderer.
“It was an altogether different role,” Bakst said. “It’s very easy in a sense to be a senator, where if you ask good questions that’s good, and he was good at that. But you’re basically lost in a body of 100 people and people don’t know all that much about what you’re doing.”
“But as governor, he was on the front lines,” Bakst continued. “He was wrestling with problems that people could relate to firsthand – budgets and things like that – and I think he looked weak or not in command of the situation.”
“Somehow he thought we should be all running toward him and genuflecting and saying, thank you for your vote on Iraq,” Fischer said. “There’s got to be more than that.”
‘I don’t have anything to lose’
When Chafee left office in January, most in Rhode Island assumed he would perhaps seek a post in the Obama administration – he and the president have been political allies over the years – or return to his former academic post at Brown University.
Instead, he shocked the state – and the country, to the extent people noticed – by announcing a long-shot bid for the White House. But his candidacy remained a low-profile head-scratcher until Tuesday night’s debate, when Chafee’s weaknesses were exposed in front of more than 15 million viewers.
The reviews were brutal. “Lincoln Chafee looked like he wandered into the building after his yacht had been lost at sea for weeks,” Jonathan Chait of New York magazine wrote in a postmortem.
Bakst was particularly taken aback by Chafee’s widely ridiculed answer to a question about why he voted for the repeal of the Glass-Steagall banking regulation law in 1999. Chafee told moderator Anderson Cooper he found the questioning “a little rough” since he’d only just arrived in the Senate after his father’s death, suggesting he should get a pass on the vote.
“I thought he looked terrible,” Bakst said. “All he had to say was, that was a mistake, alright? … If you were really a presidential candidate running a major campaign you would have either figured out an answer to that ahead of time, or you’d be nimble enough to come up with an answer or something just to sort of talk by it and say, ah, well, that was long ago.”
Lincoln Chafee, however, simply doesn’t play by the same rules as other politicians.
“I don’t think Linc Chafee is concerned about his image,” Fleming said. “He’s more concerned with getting his views out. His political career is probably over. He was elected governor with a minority of the voters, he had four years and he couldn’t run for re-election. I don’t think he has anywhere to go.”
“At this point he’s probably thinking, ‘I don’t have anything to lose,'” Fleming added.
Yet Bakst argued Chafee does have something to lose – whatever is left of his reputation as a serious figure. “He’s not doing himself a favor by this campaign he’s running, because he’s obviously not serious about it,” Bakst said, noting that before Bernie Sanders’ campaign took off, Chafee may have expected he would be the most serious challenger to Clinton’s left.
“In his mind, he’s running a serious campaign,” Fischer said, “but in the pundits’ minds – they’re obviously drawing very different conclusions because they have to weight this differently.”
Fleming said he expects Chafee to remain officially a presidential candidate for as long as he can continue to get invitations to the TV debates, the next of which will take place next month on CBS. “Once the debates are over, he’s a non-factor,” Fleming said.
‘It’s a polar opposite’
In the meantime, though, Chafee isn’t the only one affected. His former aides are keenly aware that the negative publicity about him is impacting how people view them and their decision to work for him. And they’re also dismayed at the way the once-proud Chafee name is becoming a punchline.
Brandon Bell, chairman of the Rhode Island Republican Party, said he and others in the local GOP still look back at the late John Chafee as a model for how they can win elections in such a heavily Democratic state.
“I often say to people that John Chafee – I always make sure I say John – is what Rhode Island Republicans should strive to be,” Bell said. He added: “We are New England Republicans. That doesn’t mean we have to compromise our values, but progress requires compromise, and John Chafee understood that better than anybody.”
“In terms of comparing John Chafee to his son, I don’t think that there’s any DNA testing that’s been done on that,” Bell quipped. “It’s a polar opposite.”
John Chafee “achieved something that probably every politician wants to achieve, and it’s a rarity when you do – he achieved the status of statesman,” Fischer said. “He wasn’t a politician. He was a statesman. He was gregarious and he had a good sense of humor and he could command a podium and he had the respect of his colleagues.”
“I’ve always thought to the extent that Lincoln has had problems or disappointed people it was because he’s not his father, and he was always in some way being measured against his father,” Bakst said. “And there’s nobody like his father.”
Watch John Chafee’s 1999 retirement announcement (via CSPAN).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