Lincoln Chafee: Legacy, Not Liability

04/15/2015 08:42 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015

With Hillary Clinton's formal entry into the race for the 2016 Democratic nomination for President, few on the national scene are seriously questioning whether she deserves to inherit President Obama's party in Philadelphia at next year's convention. Lincoln Chafee is the exception. This past Thursday, former Rhode Island Governor and U.S. Senator of seven years Chafee threw himself into the race, saying Clinton's vote to authorize the Iraq war "disqualified" her from the Democratic Party's nomination for president. As the only senator in President George W. Bush's party to reject the rush to war, he sees himself as the one candidate who can present strength to our enemies while assuring our friends that these unparalleled errors will never be repeated.

Today, he is not a Republican, nor is he entirely focused on the Iraq War. He was a national leader on marriage equality in the U.S. Senate, anticipating both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's "evolutions" on the issue, and he pushed Democrats and Republicans in Rhode Island to successfully end the state's discriminatory marriage practice in 2013.

The governor announced he would join the Democratic Party in September 2013, days after the state's first same-sex marriages took place in Rhode Island. After three years as an Independent governor and seven as a Republican Senator -- and more than a decade in city office -- he described the decision to relocate once more as the culmination of his search for a "political home." Now the key question for Chafee becomes whether he can convince the American people he has not only the experience to be President, but also the vision and commitment to a core set of principles.

A Formidable Father

The 2016 race is shaping up to have a markedly high number of "legacy" candidates in the mix, with Chafee joining Clinton, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) among those in families with long political histories. In order to understand the kind of President Lincoln Chafee would be, one might look at his father's record as a four-term Republican Senator and a three term governor. Sen. John Chafee was the classic, New England Republican who voted with his conscience, going against his party consistently on social issues and the environment. He introduced a health care reform bill in 1993 that included certain features which later appeared in Obamacare itself: an individual mandate, a ban on denying coverage to those with preexisting conditions, and subsidies for low-income Americans. He was a war hero who served in World War II on Guadalcanal and Okinawa and in the Korean War in the mountains of the north. He also served as Secretary of the Navy from 1969 until 1972. His 33-year tenure in the U.S. Senate, working with both parties on a wide range of partisan issues, recalls a time in American politics when ideas could still pierce the din of election cycle media frenzy.

But John Chafee's Republican Party is no longer. For both Lincoln Chafee and much of the country, George W. Bush and the Tea Party have taken the GOP to a level of social and fiscal conservatism not seen in the United States in a century. These dynamics do not reflect a changing consensus among the American people, but rather the select megarich donors and party elite who constitute the base of today's Republican Party. It is a new party based on opposition to the very notion that government can positively serve the interests of everyday Americans. It demonizes collaboration and tries to remove all those from office who still believe our shared national interest is far greater than party affiliation. No matter what, we need a President who is willing and able to appeal to all Americans. At a time with massive domestic challenges and the threat of further conflicts of Europe, North Africa and Asia, we need national leadership, not just a party leader.

Barack Obama's meteoric rise a little less than a decade ago came out of an unprecedented disappointment with the policies of the Republican Party, particularly its leaders like Bush. Today is a different time, and our problems are different. However, the vast majority of us can agree that the presidential election in 2016 is one of the most vital in the nation's history. Our domestic difficulties are matched only by our international challenges. Lincoln Chafee has a record of making the right decision at the hardest times. We see this in his record and his values. And with an ever-more extreme Republican field headed by the likes of Jeb, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, only the Democrats are in a place to choose a president, not a partisan.

A Realistic Record

After winning his first statewide race for US Senate in 2000 as a Republican, Lincoln Chafee voted against the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, opposed the Medicare Part D expansion and encouraged the reinstatement of the Clinton-era tax rate on the nation's highest earners in 2006. He was one of the few politicians in Washington who predicted how these huge cuts and added entitlements would bloat the deficit. All politicians stand to gain from lower taxes, but Chafee was unwilling to commit future generations to paying for Bush's political patronage. Of course, these policies were fundamentally wrong for the country, but it's essential to know that whoever our president is, they will not sign away tax cuts or entitlement expansions, because it is easier or more politically convenient than vetoing and taking a stand.

It almost seems strange that a war hero, Secretary of the Navy, three-term governor and four term U.S. senator like John Chafee never considered himself for the Oval Office. As Washington remains subsumed by partisan acrimony, business interests and debates over whether the government should be 'big' or 'small,' a candidate like John Chafee could have found broad support in the Silent Majority as well as those who see the government as necessary to correct historic wrongs and protect against corporate raiders prioritizing profits over their environmental impact and employees' wages. Through the last decades of the Cold War and the bright period immediately after its end, he represented the consensus that the United States could only maintain its role as the leader of the world's free countries by projecting more than just our might but our values abroad as well. He died before he ever heard the country's call to the highest office, but today we have the unlikely opportunity of a second chance.