“In my opening statement I said, ‘In thirty years of public service, I never had a scandal.’ The murmur of boos in the audience—I guess they saw that as a dig at the other candidates.”
Lincoln Chafee served as Mayor of Warwick, Rhode Island, a United States Senator from Rhode Island, and later Governor of Rhode Island. Senator Chafee was one of the five major Democratic candidates to enter the 2016 presidential primaries, and he emphasized his past opposition to the Iraq War as a contrast to Secretary Hillary Clinton’s 2003 vote in favor of the Iraq Resolution. His campaign also prioritized a 10-point plan for foreign policy, which included calls for, “No warrantless wiretapping,” “No drone strikes,” “Reduce Tensions with Russia,” among other priorities. Senator Chafee suspended his campaign on October 23, 2015. In this interview, he re-joins Merion West editor Erich Prince to deliver his firsthand account of what it’s like to run for president, the role of fundraising and debates, and general thoughts on the Democratic field as primary season approaches.
Senator Chafee, always a pleasure to speak with you. To get started, I wanted to draw your attention to some of the numbers that have come in for campaign contributions in the first quarter of 2019. In that period, Bernie Sanders led the pack at $18.2 million, followed by Kamala Harris at $12 million, and Beto O’Rourke pulled in $9.4 million in just 18 days. With the big conversations going on in the Democratic Party right now about the role of money in politics, is money the ballgame when you’re running for president? Is it more important than charisma, debate performance? Is it the most important thing?
Glad to speak with you again, Erich. What I found, not just in my own presidential run— but in all the races—is that your competitiveness is judged by your money raising. With competitiveness comes the free media; they invite you onto different shows, and they are so important. And for those who aren’t raising large amount of money, they depend on the free media. So it’s a giant catch-22. The people with the money are going to get the exposure anyway. They’re going to be running the ads. When the media freezes out the people that aren’t making gobs of money, it makes it that much more difficult. If you’re unknown, you need the free exposure.
So, it’s kind of self-fulfilling—the people who have the money are getting free coverage, and vice versa? It’s like the rich get richer.
Yes, yes. There are exceptions to that, of course, and I think Sanders is one. He came into the race in 2015 originally without much name recognition or much money, and he got traction and started attracting bigger and bigger crowds. He became the competitor to the establishment candidates.
As far as the debate process, there’s a certain threshold to fundraising one has to cross to make it into the debates. I understand Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii just got her 65,000th donation, which makes her eligible to go onto the debate stage. There have been questions about airtime within the debates themselves—the suggestion being that it’s not being equally distributed among the candidates. Is that something you’d like to see changed?
Absolutely. Again, it’s impossible to have your ideas shared with the voters if you’re not given a chance to answer questions. My experience was that I got eight minutes out of a two or three hour debate in Las Vegas.
Right, I watched that debate.
For twenty minutes at a time, and Anderson Cooper is saying, “Raise your hand if you want to answer.” Of course I’m raising my hand! I’m anxious to answer, and it’s hard to get a rhythm if you’re not involved.
You had some interesting policy proposals—I know you support of converting to the metric system, for example—but given the airtime, there perhaps wasn’t enough time to talk about those ideas?
Correct. And it was really an internationalist approach that I was advocating—banning the torture of prisoners, joining the rest of the civilized world on capital punishment, banning drone strikes as extrajudicial assassinations, having free trade, while many people on the stage were advocating for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That was all an internationalist approach, and the metric system was just a part of that.
Do you think the debates and the questions asked focus on red-meat, divisive issues rather than more nuanced policy discussion?
No, the debates are usually predictable as far as the questions that are going to be asked. That was true in Las Vegas. At any level, the questions are pretty predictable. It’s true in America that foreign relations issues rank lower, and that’s just a fact.
And you notably made a comment about the Clinton email situation. Did you get any pushback from others in the Democratic Party for making that an issue on the debate stage?
Well, it was funny. In my opening statement I said, “In thirty years of public service, I never had a scandal.” The murmur of boos in the audience—I guess they saw that as a dig at the other candidates. I had to smile when I heard boos at the fact that I had no scandals! I’ve been an ethical public servant.
Back to 2020—I’ve been following the story that Mike Gravel has been drafted by some young people from Long Island to come in and, in his words, push the conversation to the Left on the debate stage rather than being, “In It to Win It” so to speak.Does the Democratic 2020 primary need to be pushed further to the Left?
I always say the more the merrier that want to share their ideas. But I would agree that it does not need to be pushed further Left. Just seeing what I would say are very odd candidates raising large amounts of money—you mentioned Beto O’Rourke, with a short time in Congress and a failed senate race, and of course there’s Pete Buttigieg, a young mayor of a small city who hasn’t gone to Congress. But that’s indicative of the electorate looking for something different.
Maybe experience isn’t prioritized? Not to take sides, but you, for instance, served as a senator and as Governor of Rhode Island. But, in the age of Trump, is experience almost a liability? As in: “You’re part of the establishment, you’re part of the system, we need new blood.”
Yes, you’re accurate in that. Again, the exception would be Senator Sanders, who does have the experience. He’s been a mayor, which is a hard job, and then a congressman and senator, and yet he still carries the mantle of being anti-establishment.
When we talked last year, you spoke about some of the policy initiatives you had pushed in Rhode Island when you were governor. You talked about education, particularly community college. Are there any lessons from your time as governor of Rhode Island that you think are applicable not only to the Democrats running for president—but maybe also the Democrats who have re-taken the House that you would like to see put into place in different states or at a national level?
I think all governors struggle with putting the proper amounts of money in the budget for higher education or the state college system. It’s always hard with all of the competition for the tax dollars to put those big chunks into higher education. For us governors, we scratch our heads at proposals for free tuition. I think the first thing is to put enough in the budget to keep it a low tuition! That’s hard enough.
I know I believe strongly that, and my budgets reflect this; I did the heavy lifting to put the money in to keep tuitions down, freeze them if I could, because that’s what made America great: our state college system. Public education and higher education. I firmly believe that. The ability to go to a university in Montana or a university in Nevada or Alabama for low tuition. So, that would be my biggest piece of advice coming from the governor’s seat.
Before you jump to free tuition, if you want to sit in the governor’s chair, it’s hard enough just keeping it low.
I’ve also heard criticisms along the lines of that if everybody has a college degree then the relative value of it might be diminished, and people would be forced to get advanced degrees. On the other hand, there’s the idea that we want to have a very educated electorate across the board and that’s a risk we’re willing to take. Have you weighed in on that trade-off?
I believe in the past experience of what made this the greatest country in the world. A big part of that, and I don’t think anyone would disagree, is our educated population. A high percentage of our young people go on to get some kind of post-high school education at an affordable rate. I’d like to keep us the greatest country in the world and to continue to keep education affordable.
Talking a bit about Congress, I know you mentioned that you read Merion West’s interview with former Vice President Walter Mondale. He talked about how he felt that the Democrats ought to take issue with the aspects of President Trump that they find problematic, but that can’t be their entire platform. In his view, they should focus on environmental issues and healthcare issues. Are there any policies that Democrats are considering now—or that you think that they ought to consider—that you think would behoove them to govern well and show the American people that they are pursuing policy and not just becoming a party of opposition to President Trump?
I agree with Vice President Mondale that the Democrats have become obsessed and blind in their hatred of President Trump and the Russia investigation. I was public on this back a year ago as we waded through months and months of accusations that Russia interfered in the election. I never believed that people in Wisconsin, for instance—a state that carried Trump—were influenced by Russians. It was a complete wild goose chase, and now I think his tax returns are another.
I think there are legitimate policy issues, and Vice President Mondale is right. President Trump is terrible with the environment and what’s happening with climate change and extreme weather and his support for fossil fuels and those types of issues that I think are what Americans care about. And when I see what he’s doing around the world with the bullying tactics against our adversaries and allies alike—these are legitimate issues. Get away from some of the, for me, peripheral, personal issues.
You’ve been very vocal about Russia, and there’s been a number of figures not only on the Right but also the progressive Left that have been critical of the Russia investigation: Glen Greenwald at The Intercept for example. Did you experience a lot of pushback for those views within Democratic circles?
Absolutely. When I first said this was a wild goose chase—I even called it a witch hunt publicly—I got a lot of pushback from Democrats. A lot of emails and calls saying, “What are you saying? This is how we’ll impeach this guy!” And I just never believed it. So, I shut my mouth and waited and watched, and it appears I was right.
CNN, MSNBC, would they listen to what you were saying about the investigation?
AP was probably my highest visibility on it. They ran some stories with my views.
Last question: You’ve run for president. What’s the hardest part of that process?
Each election is different. I thought that Secretary Clinton should have had someone asking her about her Iraq vote and performance as Secretary of State, and then Senator Sanders got in. O’Malley was always in. But it was a small field. They’re all different. This time, we’re up to 20 candidates. In 2016, the Republicans had 17 candidates.
The hardest thing is just getting that momentum. You never know who’s going to get traction. You start out at little potluck suppers in New Hampshire and Iowa with local Democratic committees in the basement of a church, for instance, and everyone brings some food and they hear the candidates. Howard Dean could suddenly take off, or Jimmy Carter. Or Bernie Sanders. He was unlikely. A socialist, not even in the Democratic Party! Off he went.
Both of you and Senator Sanders, of course, have been Independents and then ran for president as Democrats.
Yes. And Jim Webb, he was on the stage, and he was a former Republican. And Hillary Clinton was a Goldwater girl. Martin O’Malley was the only one who could raise a hand and say, “I’m the only one who’s been a Democrat for my whole life!”
And then, on the other side, President Trump had been a Democrat at various points in his career.
Yes. I think this field of Democrats—Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, John Hickenlooper—there’s not too many that have been on the other side of the fence. None of them, I think, as I look at the list here.
Right, and among the 2020 candidates, I recall that Governor Hickenlooper, like you have in the past, has discussed applying ideas in education from his time as Governor of Colorado to the national level.
Yes, I was proud to overlap with Governor Hickenlooper—and Jay Inslee.
Senator Chafee, always nice talking with you.
Thanks, Erich. I enjoyed it.