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Roll Call

Chafee’s Parting Shot

Former Senator Recounts His Lonely Tenure on Capitol Hill

The seeds of former Sen. Lincoln Chafee’s (R-R.I.) 2006 defeat were planted even before Chafee and President Bush were sworn into office for their first full terms. That much becomes clear in Chafee’s new book, “Against the Tide.”

The former Senator describes a December 2000 meeting of Republican moderates with Vice President-elect Cheney. Chafee listened as Cheney swore off the moderate course he and Bush had just finished championing in their campaign.

Hearing Cheney say “the campaign was over and that our actions in office would not be dictated by what had to be said in the campaign,” Chafee writes, was “the most demoralizing moment of my seven-year tenure in the Senate.”

Chafee’s book, published Monday, recounts a painful political existence that would include more demoralizing moments during a career spent as one of the only — and sometimes the only — Senate Republicans challenging Bush’s agenda.

Chafee paints an ironic picture of his career collapsing just as his party’s prospects rose.

When Bush carried Ohio to win re-election in 2004, Chafee said in an interview: “Early in the morning I knew that my election prospects were going to be very, very difficult in 2006.”

Chafee wound up falling to now-Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D), 54 percent to 46 percent.

The former Senator spares little in his criticism of Bush and his Congressional allies. Chafee refers to the president as a “schoolyard tough” with a “pugnacious and intractable attitude.” If he had known how bad Bush would be, he writes, he would have joined the Congressional Black Caucus in 2000 in challenging the Florida election results.

But that’s not to say Chafee lets the Democrats off easy. He criticizes them too, calling for a third party.

“Republicans have led poorly and Democrats have shown themselves unable to lead at all,” he writes. “Neither party inspires confidence in its ability to unite America and repair what has been damaged at home and abroad.”

Chafee’s chief charge against Bush and other GOP lawmakers is a lack of vigor in examining the justification for the war in Iraq. Chafee was the only Senate Republican to vote against authorizing what he refers to as an “unnecessary and immoral war.”

Given his disdain for the war, it’s not hard to understand why Chafee has endorsed Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) for president. While Obama opposed the war in 2002, his rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), voted to authorize force — a decision that, Chafee writes, “should be a career-ending lapse of judgment.”

Despite his outspoken criticism of Bush and his public decision to write in a vote for George H.W. Bush for president in 2004, Chafee was heavily backed in 2006 by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which viewed him as the only Republican who could hold the seat. Resources from the NRSC were necessary for Chafee to fend off a primary challenge from the right from then-Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey.

There clearly is no love between Chafee and Laffey, whom the author refuses to mention by name in the book, calling him only “my opponent.”

“If he’s so eager to take on liberal Democrats in the general election, [Sen.] Jack Reed is up,” Chafee said in an interview. “He can go get his signatures against Jack Reed and we’ll see if he can break 20 percent.”

Laffey took 46 percent against Chafee and forced him to spend precious funds he needed for the general election.

“It was a money issue,” Chafee said. With a September primary, “the Democrats just sat back, and the day after the primary, my supporters were saying, ‘Linc, I see five Democratic ads for every one of yours.’ It was hard.”

Considering the difficulty Chafee was having with Republicans both in Washington and Rhode Island, wouldn’t it have been easier to run for re-election as a Democrat?

Chafee, who formally left the Republican party shortly after his defeat, said he considered it, but he feared that his punishment for leaving the party would be Rhode Island getting a raw deal with the 2005 highway bill and a military closure bill. That, and support from then-Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the NRSC kept him in the Republican fold.

Chafee said he’s enjoying being back home in Rhode Island. He is a fellow at Brown University, his alma mater, and taught a course on foreign affairs.

He said he’s just starting to think about a possible return to politics.

“Rhode Island’s a small state, and just going to the market and getting your gasoline or walking down the street, people say favorable things and urge me to reconsider doing something political,” Chafee said. “I’d say there’s still some good will.”

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