The Blog

Lincoln Chafee, Cracked Pot

Democrats have been gleefully assessing the cracked pots supposedly running for the Republican nomination for president. But with today's announcement by former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, the Democrats have their very own cracked pot to deal with.
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Democrats have been gleefully assessing the cracked pots supposedly running for the Republican nomination for president, many of whom have not the slightest chance of breaking out of the single digits in polls or primaries. These include the preacher-turned-pitchman Mike Huckabee, who wants to cure your diabetes, save Israel so Jesus can come back again soon, and happily rake in campaign contributions from gullible evangelicals just the way he did in 2012. Or consider the conveniently African American candidate, surgeon Ben Carson, who can't open his mouth without some vintage sexism spewing forth, or perhaps another outrageous claim about the dangers of Barack Obama's Muslim agenda.

But with today's announcement by former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, the Democrats have their very own cracked pot to deal with. Taking advantage of 15 minutes of fame by announcing an exploratory committee to pursue the presidency of the United States, Chafee has been making the rounds on TV. I saw him last night on The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, and this morning on Morning Joe. And I was reminded of how embarrassing this little-known fellow can be when the cameras are running.

He has the charisma of Walter Mondale wrapped in the political instincts of a small town city councilman, which he once was, and perhaps would have remained, if he hadn't been the son of a famous political dynasty. He is George W. Bush with more intelligence but far less political talent.

Full disclosure: Chafee and I both went to Brown University at around the same time, but our paths never crossed. He was the scion of one of the most powerful political families in the history of Rhode Island, the son of an extremely popular senator who was a household name for generations, the moderate Republican John Chafee. He majored in classics, so he's smart enough to read Latin and Greek, and he was captain of the wrestling team. But unlike many Brown graduates, Lincoln Chafee did not go on to law or grad school; instead, he went to Bozeman, Montana, and got an advanced degree as a farrier. That is the art of shoeing horses. He plied his trade as a farrier at race tracks around the country and in Canada for seven years. Then he settled down in a very small, very wealthy town in Rhode Island, and eventually became its mayor.

He would have remained at this level, if his father had not died and basically left his son the U.S. senate seat in his will (he was appointed to serve out his father's term). He may have inherited a senate seat, but it soon became clear that Lincoln Chafee had not inherited his father's natural gift for politics, his charisma, or his political instincts. He was unable to hold the seat when he actually had to run for it himself. This is a pattern in Lincoln Chafee's life; he gets things handed to him on a platter, and then does not have the ability to hang on to them.

Is there anything that distinguishes this man who was born with every advantage, personal, economic, and political? The most interesting thing about Lincoln Chafee is that in 2002 he was the only Republican senator to vote against the Iraq War, and this eventually led him to leave the Republican Party to become an Independent. He won election to be governor of Rhode Island as an Independent, and as governor watched his poll numbers sink.

Perhaps as a way to stem his record unpopularity, he switched parties again in 2013 and became a Democrat, just in time to try and get help from the Democratic Governor's Association for re-election. When this tactic failed to bring his popularity up, in a state with a huge Democratic advantage in voter registration, the writing was on the wall; Chafee decided not to even try to run for re-election.

When asked why he wants to run for president in the Democratic party primaries against Hillary Clinton, he gives the same answer over and over, whether to Lawrence O'Donnell, Joe Scarborough, or the Wall Street Journal: he believes his one shining moment of supposed political courage, voting against the Iraq war in 2002, a vote that was not going to cost him anything in terms of political support in blue-state Rhode Island, is reason enough for voters to chose him over Hillary Clinton.

It's embarrassing, really, to see him chase relevancy and seek the spotlight over a single vote that took place 12 years ago. Poor Lincoln Chafee will get some media attention on a slow news day. But he's a man who's never won re-election in one of the smallest states in the U.S., even given the advantages of a famous name, even after changing parties. His speaking style can most kindly be described as Mister Rogers meets Mister Smith in a Frank Capra movie, and he has never demonstrated any connection to real voters. He's always been a strange bird as a pol, awkward and odd. He is not likely to be anything more than the Democratic party's first Official Cracked Pot of 2016.