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Political Profile: An Interview with Lincoln Chafee

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“There are more wedge issues that divert our attention from the real issues. That’s what I found during my time in the Senate…But the Republicans wanted to send their Republican candidates out to campaign about gay marriage and abortion and flag burning. It’s all about control of the Senate.”

Lincoln Chafee has held office at all three levels of government. He was Mayor of Warwick, Rhode Island for six years, before serving in the Senate from 1999 to 2007, and then returning to Rhode Island to be its governor for four years. Mr. Chafee began his political career as a member of the Republican Party. In the Senate,  Senator Chafee went against his party, most notably in its support of the Iraq War, being the only Republican to do so at the time. Chafee was elected Governor of Rhode Island as an Independent, but he later aligned himself with the Democratic party in 2013. In 2016, he ran for President of the United States, before withdrawing prior to voting. On June 22nd, Governor Chafee discussed with Merion West’s Erich Prince his experiences at different levels of government, voting against his party, the future of the Democratic Party, and polarization in America.

To get started, since a lot of our coverage deals with polarization and coming to the middle, I want to ask you what it’s like to vote against your party. There were a number of notable instances back when you were Republican. You and Senator McCain voted against the 1.35 trillion dollar tax cut in 2001. Nowadays, we have folks like Jeff Flake and Rand Paul, for example, voting against Gina Hapsel for CIA Director. What’s it like to break with your party and be one of the lone couple of Republicans or Democrats voting against the party leaders?

I was very apprehensive about doing that and getting frozen out by my caucus, and anything that I wanted, of course, would never move forward. So I made a very sharp and diligent effort to keep good relations with the leadership. I’d sit at their table at our lunches that we’d have in the Senate. I’d stand up at our Tuesday Group lunch and explain my vote. My fellow Republican senators, at the time, seemed to kind of respect me for it, I think. After I did kind of a rant about the Iraq War vote, I said, “I’m a pro-choice, pro-environment, anti-war Republican.” And I kind of yelled it, and the caucus was quiet for a while, and then Judd Gregg said, “It’s the last one that counts.”

So, you alluded to this idea of potentially bearing consequences if you go against your party leaders. Perhaps some of the issues you favor or bills you might want to put forward might not get the same amount of attention. I know there’s an example cited by some political scientists of New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith sometimes bucking the party leaders, and it became difficult sometimes for him to get some of his bills to passage. Do you think that is something that happens in practice a lot in Washington?

Yes, I think in any legislative body, that’s true. I served on the Warwick City Council, and I saw some cases of being outvoted eight-to-one in a nine-member council. But I worked hard. After the council meetings, they would go across the streets to a little bar and have a couple beers, and I’d always join them. At first, it was kind of an icy reception, but they came to like me. And I was able to get things done. It takes hard work, if you’re going to vote your conscience. You really have to work hard to keep those good personal relationships with your fellow members of the caucus or city council.

I had an op-ed out a couple weeks ago talking about the role of cross-party friendships, and I used the example of the eulogy that Joe Biden gave for Strom Thurmond and the relationship those two opponents forged. There are other examples like Joe Lieberman and Olympia Snowe or Lindsey Graham: friendships that transcended political affiliation. Drawing on your time in the state government of Rhode Island or in Washington, do you think there’s a big role to be seen in easing tensions when you have that personal connection?

Yes, but it does take work. You have to go to all the social events that are held—the best way I felt, anyway. Anytime there was a family event and Republicans were getting together, I made sure I was there. It does take work, but it pays off.

There’s a book out recently called It’s Even Worse Than It Looks by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, and one of the premises of this book is that, starting in 1994, some of the plans of Gingrich and the Republican Revolution may have contributed to the polarization we see today. There was a thought that members of Congress should go back home on the weekends so as not to be perceived as out-of-touch. Thus, they are heading to their districts rather than socializing in Washington. Is this partially to blame for some of the polarization we see?

Absolutely. They say that before the “Jet Age,” it was impossible for everybody to go home. Stuck in steamy hot Washington, Republicans and Democrats would socialize together, play cards, or have a cookout. There’s been a change, and [this] sort of pressure came to get back to your district, to go back to Arizona, back to the West Coast, go back to California for the weekend.

You dealt with certain efforts for immigration compromise or reform during your time in the Senate. What do you make of some of the things that have been going on in the past couple of weeks when it comes to immigration policy at the federal level?

On DACA, it just makes such political sense to address this growing voting bloc. I think that those Republicans in those districts where Hispanic voters are growing—it’s smart; they want to address this. So there’s a political expediency to this particular issue. I’m just surprised how long it’s taken to address what we call the McCain-Kennedy.

Do you have some theories as to why it wasn’t addressed more thoroughly ten years ago, when some of these other bills were being considered?

I don’t, Erich. It just doesn’t make sense to me. For the Republicans, you put in McCain-Kennedy; we have border security and help them learn English and address many anti-immigrant issues in that bill. 11 million people are here without papers, roughly, and let’s address it. Everybody knows how valuable that this population is to our economy also.

So you were Governor of Rhode Island, you served as a Senator, you’ve served as a mayor. There’s a lot of discussions these days about a so-called “divide” between Washington and how the government functions down at the local and state levels. In your experience, what are some of the main, day-to-day differences in the issues that you’re dealing with and addressing and the approaches you bring to them?

They were very different. We were, in the Senate, addressing international issues and national issues. As Governor, [there was] much more trying to get the economy going in our state and just doing day-to-day issues, managing all the different departments, the Department of Youth, Children, and Families and different controversies that come up with environmental issues, and the Department of Transportation. It was a much more day-to-day focus, whereas on the federal level, you get a bigger picture. Looking more to future issues: immigration reform and that type of thing.

So I read a little bit about the unemployment rate when you began your term as Governor and then it’s sharp decrease throughout. Is that one of the things you’re proudest of from your time as Governor of Rhode Island or are there other signature achievements that you believe your administration particularly tackled effectively?

I’m very proud that, and we did it without corporate subsidy, just getting back to basic blocking and tackling. We just ran all our departments well and invested in our schools and in our infrastructure and workforce development. Those are the three things I really focused on in my budget. I’m very proud that it paid results. We had the biggest unemployment drop with my core budget—all but Nevada. Nevada had a bigger drop than we did. So I’m very, very proud of that. At the same time, I believe in growing the economy. 

There’s a book out by Richard Florida that talks about tolerance, talent, and technology. Tolerance. We see that in these booming economies in Cambridge, in Austin, and in Palo Alto, California. They’re just tolerant. That’s where good people like to go and work.

So, we did pass gay marriage equality, and Rhode Island is the most Roman Catholic state in the country. It passed the House, but the Senate was the tough one. Our bishop was very active in calling senators. In the end, they never held a vote on it, and I just wanted to have a vote on it. Just as I knew, once the pressure was on, they wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of history, and it was 26 to 12: an overwhelming win. On top of that, I think not only is it the right thing to do, but also I believe that it’s good for the economy. For Richard Florida, balancing technology, talent and tolerance aspects build your economy.

So that’s an interesting idea because I know that sometimes there’s the tendency to conceive of social issues and economic issues separately. But what you’re suggesting is that if you have social issues that encourage tolerance or encourage diversity, maybe economic progress might follow.

I believe that. And Richard Florida’s book is about that. My predecessor for Governor had something called E-Verify, an anti-immigrant initiative he signed onto, and I told the immigrant population that my first act as Governor would be to repeal E-Verify. So I was inaugurated, and the next day we had a big rally. And I lived up to my word, and the first thing I did was repeal E-Verify. So it’s the same thing as you said: diversity and tolerance, and it grows the economy. I believe that. That’s why I wanted to do that. Not only was it the right thing to do, but I believe it will help grow our economy.

I guess there have been some counterexamples of states that have pursued certain policies, and they’ve potentially lost business as a result of companies saying we don’t want to do business in states that adopt certain policies.

Yes, I think North Carolina was a prime example of this.

So, there’s another economic issue that’s been coming up a lot, and I discussed this with Governor Hickenlooper when we spoke earlier this month. He was talking a lot about the role of automation and changing work dynamics, and he believes that it might be the job of education to take people who are bank tellers, for example, and provide them with new skills to get into cybersecurity. As in, maybe we can transfer some of the skills of a bank teller and move them over to cybersecurity. You’ve served as Governor, what are some of the on-the-ground, state-level policies that can help prepare a workforce for a changing economy, if need be?

Well, I believe that one of the reasons America is the greatest country in the world is our state college system. It has prospered because the state has put into their budget aid for higher education, and you can go to the University of Rhode Island or Rhode Island College or Community College of Rhode Island for a more affordable tuition. So put the money in, and that’s where things happen, especially at the community college level where you learn new skills. That’s where bank teller can go to community college or Rhode Island College and learn new skills and go out into the workforce, if it’s affordable. I certainly did that in my budget.

I asked this to Jenny Wilson who’s running for Senate in Utah, and I was quoting Mayor Landrieu down in New Orleans, who was talking about how—moving back to this idea of compromise and partisanship—for those working at the state level, especially mayors and governors, there’s more of a premium on getting things done regardless of the party. You mentioned being on the city council where maybe it’s eight to one, but you’re working together and going to the bar afterward. Is there more of an effort in local and state governments than in Washington on getting things done regardless of party and partisanship?

Yes, I do believe that. You mentioned 1994. Ever since then, the numbers in the House and Senate have been close enough so that every few years there’s the battle for control in the committees and the majority, and so there are more wedge issues that divert our attention from the real issues. That’s what I found during my time in the Senate. We were voting on—getting back to gay marriage—a constitutional amendment to not allow states to pass marriage equality. We had six weeks of debate on some abortion bill. Even flag burning came up, Erich. Weeks were spent debating this, and no one’s burning the flag. These are wedge issues. But the Republicans wanted to send their Republican candidates out to campaign about gay marriage and abortion and flag burning. It’s all about control of the Senate.

And it’s maybe a distraction from some of the bread and butter, dinner table economic issues?

That was when Iraq was going down the tube. The highway bill—we hadn’t passed a highway bill, another important priority. We were wasting our time on wedge issues.

So you’ve been a Republican and a Democrat. I know that there’s this theory tossed around that there are institutional advantages in producing better legislation when you have a divided government, when you need to force compromise. I remember John Cornyn gave a speech to that effect on the Senate floor in 2014. When you have the President held by one party and Congress by another, does it encourage compromise or the finding of a middle ground? Do you think that is something that could potentially be an antidote to our current polarized times?

Well, Bill Clinton famously triangulated. Republicans would come up with an idea, and he’d take it—welfare reform, for instance. But I think it’s much easier when the Republicans are cramming their agenda through, now controlling all three areas of passing legislation. More tax cuts for the wealthy! There should sometimes be divided government to stop insanity such as that. 

That’s clearly why, in your example, Republicans were going out and campaigning so hard on these wedge issues: to ensure control of Congress.

So, the last question I want to ask you is about the future of polarization. I know it’s notoriously difficult to predict the future. But we’ve had a civil war in the past, and we’ve had periods of high and low polarization. Has the polarization reached its apex? Have people had enough, and are they starting to come to the middle again? Or should we brace ourselves for continued division and gridlock?

I think that the phenomenon of Donald Trump being President has co-opted the partisanship as the top priority for many Americans. There’s just no argument that it’s controversial and taking a different course for Americans over many, many decades. But I think that means that the top priority, looking forward to these elections of 2018 and 2020, is: is this going to continue? Or is this going to cease? That’s going to be the top area to look at where we’re going in the United States of America.

So the President is going to have a lot of influence on that?

Yes, and we Democrats are so successful at shooting ourselves in the foot. I think the Mueller investigation is going to be a big fizzle. What I believe is that it’s going to backfire on the Democrats. We’ve got to get our act together and realize how the American people are thinking. We had Bernie Sanders, I think, who had much more appeal to that thirst for an outsider that Americans were wanting. They didn’t care who it was. They just didn’t want someone from the status quo, and we Democrats missed that by nominating Secretary Clinton. We’ve got to be smart going forward and keep our finger on the pulse of Americans in all the states, in all the corners of the country.

Thank you for your time this morning, Governor. I’ve been to your state of Rhode Island several times, and I’ve had some great visits there. Nice to speak with you.

Well good, come back soon.

Thank you, Governor.

Thank you.

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief at Merion West. With a background in journalism and media criticism, he has contributed to newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The News & Observer, as well as online outlets including Quillette and The Hill. Erich has also spoken at conferences and events on issues related to gangs, crime, and policing. He studied political science at Yale University.