A Less Sanguine Chafee Ponders Future

Posted July 6, 2007 at 5:20pm

Former Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) has steered clear of politics since Ocean State voters denied him re-election last November, but he does have advice for his beleaguered party.

In an interview last week, he urged GOP leaders to broaden their agenda so it appeals beyond the conservative base, and he suggested Republican candidates soften their rhetoric.

“Don’t be tone-deaf to the American people,” counseled Chafee, now a visiting fellow at Brown University. “Voters sent a message and the Republican Party better listen.

“People said ‘we don’t want [votes on] constitutional amendments, flag burning and gay marriage,’” said the Senatorial scion, referring to some of the last bills Republican leaders brought up for consideration in 2006 before adjourning to campaign.

“Ultimately, the American people want accomplishments,” he added.

Chafee, son of the late Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), has no intention of putting his name on next year’s ballot. His teaching fellowship extends only through the fall semester. The former Warwick mayor is using the time to ponder his future — and the political landscape. Now that he’s detached from politics, he offered a blunt assessment of his party’s woes.

Chafee pointed to the immigration debate as an example of where some Republicans are veering horribly off course. He said the long-term consequences for the GOP if it opposes moderate immigration reform could be disastrous.

Republican presidential candidates who echo the harsh rhetoric of conservative talk-radio commentators are hurting themselves, he said.

Chafee noted that some incumbents who touted the “toughest” position on illegal immigration, such as then-Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), lost last year.

“Even some non-Hispanic voters didn’t like the harsh rhetoric,” he said.

If party leaders side with the deport-them-all-and-build-a-fence crowd, they likely will alienate the fastest-growing segment of the voting population, Chafee warned.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman was “emphatic” about the need to reach out to Latino voters, Chafee said. “He was a smart, astute reader of voting blocs so there definitely is that risk.”

As he speaks out and considers his future, Chafee, 54, cannot help but take into account political trends at home and in the nation.

Darrell West, a Brown University professor who oversees the school’s political polling, said Chafee’s loss last fall to now-Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) is largely attributable to President Bush’s rock-bottom popularity in Rhode Island.

“There were Republicans who lost at the city level and the town council level” because of voter dissatisfaction with Bush and the Iraq War, West said.

So far, the GOP’s prospects in the Ocean State are not looking any better, according to both Chafee and West.

Chafee did hold out the hope that 2008 might be better for Republican Congressional candidates across the country than 2006 was.

“It might be a little different in that the voters, if they are angry, they can vent at the presidential level,” Chafee said. “But I imagine it’s still going to be [a liability] … just having an ‘R’ after your name” in Democratic and swing districts.

Since New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg sparked speculation that he is preparing an independent presidential candidacy by changing his voter registration from Republican to unaffiliated, talk about whether 2008 will be hospitable to a serious third-party campaign has abounded.

“I do think there are opportunities in third parties now,” Chafee said. Bloomberg “is a smart man. He’s seeing what a lot of people are seeing, that there are opportunities.”

Chafee said he might endorse a Republican presidential candidate, if asked, but has yet to do so. He also did not rule out supporting an Independent, such as Bloomberg, even to the extent of joining the ticket.

“It’s wide open, and that’s why I’m enjoying a semester away from politics [so I can] ponder all these things,” Chafee said.

Chafee, whom pundits were constantly monitoring to see if he would bolt the GOP, said he went out of his way to prove his party loyalty.

“I worked really hard at attending every Republican event,” Chafee said, noting he did not miss one of the traditional “Tuesday lunches” both parties hold in the Senate.

He frequented the less formal Thursday lunches as well. And he attended numerous social events, which were often organized by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

“I was an active member of the caucus,” Chafee said.

He acknowledged how tough being a “team player” could be for him at times, but he said he was devoted to his affiliation.

“It was difficult believing in the things I consider traditional Republican values, such as environmental stewardship, fiscal discipline, helping the less fortunate; and it changed so drastically.

“Sometimes it wasn’t fun to hear the agenda for the week,” Chafee said.

He knew his votes, which often deviated from the majority of his Republican colleagues, could cause friction, thus he worked all the harder to stand connected.

He added that his status as a “maverick” was “all the more reason to stay active in the party.”

Chafee recently moved his family to Providence. It is well-known that he remembers the seven years he spent as mayor fondly, thus speculation has begun that he might run for mayor of Providence in 2010 if the incumbent, David Cicilline (D), decides to seek the governorship.

Chafee said such an elaborate scenario has yet to cross his mind.

“2010 is long enough away,” he said. “I’m not making any decisions here in July of 2007.”