Q&A: Lincoln Chafee

Lincoln Chafee, former Republican senator from Rhode Island, on when he realized he couldn’t get behind Dick Cheney.

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Mother Jones: Your book, Against the Tide: How a Compliant Congress Empowered a Reckless President, lays out a pretty progressive personal doctrine. You’re for affirmative action. You’re for abortion rights. You’re for gun control. You’re for the environment. You’re against the Iraq War. What made you think of yourself as a Republican when you started out in public life?

Lincoln Chafee: Well, I saw the Republican Party change over my lifetime. I was born in 1953, so that’s the Eisenhower administration. And there was a whole crew of Republican governors who were popular in the ’60s: Scranton, Rockefeller, and so on. This was a new generation of Republicans, we assumed. Then Goldwater won the nomination in 1964 and the party started to change. Nixon won in ’68. Reagan then came along. The party in my lifetime changed most significantly in watching the South change from solid Democrat to solid Republican. [As a result,] you saw the issues change.

I remember my Republican Party as fiscally conservative, as caring about the environment. [As caring about] personal liberties, which include a woman’s right to take personal positions for herself and the right of same-sex people to marry. That’s a liberty that my old Republican Party wouldn’t have cared about. And fear of foreign entanglements. Those conservative Republican principles have changed in my lifetime. Now it’s the social issues. Now it’s different priorities.

MJ: In the beginning of your book you write that Dick Cheney articulated a very partisan conservative agenda to you and to other moderate Republicans the day that the Supreme Court decided Bush v. Gore. Do you think the Bush administration in 2000 was intentionally misleading the public when it said Bush was a “uniter not a divider,” or was there some sort of change?

LC: They had—we know now in retrospect—the philosophy of say anything to get elected. And they knew that slogan would resonate, as indeed it did.

MJ: People were frustrated by gridlock in the Republican Congress.

LC: Manifested by all the Republican incumbent losses in 2000, resulting in a 50-50 Senate. Slade Gordon lost. Rod Grams in Minnesota lost. Spencer Abraham in Michigan lost. John Ashcroft in Missouri lost. Bill Roth in Delaware lost. These are all Republican incumbents who lost in 2000. That’s a statement by the American people.

MJ: When Cheney had that lunch meeting with moderate Republican senators and basically blew off your priorities, was that when you kind of got the sense that you no longer fit in the Republican Party? Was it as early as 2000?

LC: Yes, that lunch was very, very, very significant in several ways. One was that he declared at that lunch that “never mind what we said; we’re going to do something different.” And the other was that my fellow moderates weren’t going to make a stand. I saw that at that lunch. That they were not going to fight. Thirdly, it was the vice president making these proclamations. That was significant. Not the president. It was the vice president making these radical proclamations. So I was on my guard. I went back to my office and wrote him a letter right away. I think I quoted it in the book. I went right on record.

LC: But it was eight years until you officially left the Republican Party. What made you stick it out?

MJ: Well, that’s the question I probably get most often. I was in a no-win situation. Republicans were in control of the House, the Senate, and the White House for all those years except for the brief time when Jeffords switched parties. I was in the no-win situation of having to look after Rhode Island, my home state. And there is retribution. Jeffords lost his dairy compact when Republicans came back into power.

MJ: You were fearful that Rhode Islanders would get the short end of the stick if you left the Republican Party?

LC: Oh, there’s no doubt. There’s no doubt.

MJ: And did you ever consider switching in 2006, right before you ran for reelection and lost? Or dropping the Republican tag and running as an Independent maybe a month before the election? Do you think it would have helped your chances of winning?

LC: I’ll tell you when I considered it. In November of 2004 when I was watching Ohio come in Bush/Cheney. At that moment, at that very moment two years before my election I clearly saw the difficulty I would have winning in ’06 and I was considering my options. Do I run as a Democrat? Do I run as an Independent? Let’s see, the highway bill was coming up, which comes up every six years, and I was on the Environment and Public Works Committee, a key committee that allocates the money. In the majority party, as a Republican, I could help Rhode Island. Same with the Base Realignment and Closure bill, the BRAC, which comes up every 10 years. I was just in a no-win situation. And I could clearly see it as I sat in front of the TV watching Ohio come in.

MJ: Right now you officially carry the tag of Independent, right?

LC: Yes.

MJ: If you were in Congress today do you think you would caucus with the Democrats? Today do you have more in common with the Democratic than the Republican Party?

LC: Yes.

MJ: You write in the book that if you had known what Bush would do with the country you would have raised your voice to contest the Bush/Gore electoral vote in the Senate back in 2000. What do you think will be the long-term effects of this presidency?

LC: They’re just immeasurable, the long-term effects. The surplus is gone. And such hard work—I mean decades of work went into creating the surplus. Back to Gramm-Rudman in the ’80s. And George H.W. Bush going back on “Read my lips. No new taxes.” He had to go back on that to address these deficits. And that’s a tremendous amount of work.

Probably bigger than anything, however, is our loss of credibility. That’s going to be the hardest to repair. We just don’t have any credibility anymore. And the Bush/Cheney philosophy. Do anything to get elected. The ends justify the means. I’m not the only one saying it now. It’s common knowledge. The whole Valerie Plame thing. Weapons of mass destruction. There’s just no credibility.

MJ: How do you think we can get that credibility back? Can we?

LC: It starts with being consistent. You just consistently tell the truth. And that’s how you regain the trust. Trust is built with consistency. I firmly believe that.

MJ: You write that when Cheney wanted you to vote his way on a bill he took what you describe as an “I talk, you listen” approach. Do you think the administration respected Congress at all and the constitutional role it has in government?

LC: Absolutely not. And that Cheney lunch, here he was meeting with the five moderates in a 50-50 Senate and he was willing to go to battle with us and test us. And my question, when I finally got a chance as a junior member, was “Our votes are important, Mr. Vice President Elect.” And he said, “Every vote is important.” In other words, “Well, if I lose you I’ll go get a Zell Miller. If I lose Olympia Snow I’ll go get a Ben Nelson or a John Barrow. We’ll turn up the heat on them.” That was the thinking. Just contempt for Congress. And we didn’t push back. It was just the schoolyard bully. It was exactly like that. And all you need to do is stand up right away. And it should have happened right at that lunch.

MJ: How would you describe how the next administration ought to interact with Congress or how it ought to treat Congress?

LC: Good question. Depends. Depends on the Congress you’re dealing with. I was a Republican mayor with a very, very heavily Democratic city council. We had a nine-member city council. Seven-to-two my whole time. I had to work with the Democrats. We had two-year elections in my city and I was the first Republican in thirty years. They were always after me. A lot of the decisions on the city council were politically motivated and designed to embarrass me. So it took some compromise. I had to fund some of their projects. I didn’t want to waste the taxpayers’ money but it had to be done to get certain things through the council. Personal relationships are so important, too. You build some friendships. Reagan did it with Tip O’Neil.

MJ: You describe going to the CIA before the Iraq War vote and finding out that they had nothing to convince you that Iraq had the WMD that the administration was claiming it had. Why do you think Congress and to some extent the press were so willing to buy in to the administration’s line on the war?

LC: That’s a question historians are going to ponder for years and years. And I think a lot of it had to do with the anger of the American people. I mean, I’ve just never seen anything like it. I mean understandably, the two towers. People jumping out of 100-story windows. And then down they came. The two towers in a huge ball of flame and debris. There’s nothing more dramatic. Remember the Dixie Chicks? They made some offhand comment about how they were embarrassed to be from Texas. And then the uproar. That was the climate. The huge anger. Anger’s not a good emotion.

MJ: Do you think Congress has a role to play to stand up to or to check the popular sentiment at a time like that?

LC: Absolutely. The founding fathers clearly foresaw this. And that’s why they gave the Senate a six-year term. Two-thirds of us are not up at any given time. Only a third of us are up. They clearly set up the Senate as a more deliberative body that was designed to step back from the emotional moments. It just didn’t work. And I’ve tried to understand why the people didn’t work, didn’t do their jobs at this critical moment in American history.

MJ: Do you think the next administration will give back some of the executive powers that the Bush administration has grabbed for itself? Do you think that any administration, Democrat or Republican, will willingly give back powers to Congress?

LC: You know, that was the danger all along. Republicans would mutter amongst themselves—they always talked about it as Hilary Clinton. “Wait until she becomes president, then she’ll have these powers. We’re starting something we might regret.” I can hear my colleagues muttering about that. Signing statements and the like.

MJ: Is the reason you endorsed Barack Obama because he opposed the war and John McCain was for it, or were there other reasons as well?

LC: That was the primary reason for my decision. There’s no way I could support anybody who voted for the war.

MJ: What if it had been John McCain versus Hilary Clinton, both of whom voted for the war?

LC: I wrote in President George H.W. Bush in ’04. And that’s an option. My last chapter talks about the need for another party. I submitted the manuscript before the Obama campaign took off. I think Obama’s candidacy has fulfilled what has been missing in America. Somebody from the progressive side to stand up for what America should be and what many of us want it to be.

MJ: Do you plan on campaigning for Obama, if asked?

LC: Yes. Anything they want, I’ll do.

MJ: You met with Hugo Chavez and you describe it in the book. Do you want to weigh in on this foreign policy debate about the wisdom of meeting with enemies that puts Obama on one side and McCain on the other?

LC: Absolutely. Who is second in military might in the world? Who is second? Nobody knows. There is no second. Why do we have this paranoia? We should be a strong, confident country. Confident in our ability to assess the person who might be sitting across the table from us and deal from strength and confidence. I remember Eisenhower meeting with Khrushchev. Nixon meeting with Mao. Reagan meeting with Gorbachev. There wasn’t a big paranoia associated with it. And then all of a sudden we’re going to be taken advantage of? By someone like the president of Iran?


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