THE BLOG

The Foreign Policy Candidates: Lindsey Graham and Lincoln Chafee

06/03/2015 09:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016

We continue our running series of taking a serious look at all the announced candidates for president with two new entries this week, one from each side of the aisle. Republican Lindsey Graham made his formal announcement earlier in the week, and today Democrat Lincoln Chafee is also set to announce his candidacy.

The two men are as different as chalk and cheese, as the old saying goes, but there is a thread of commonality running through both their campaign positions: they are both running to challenge the others in their own party on foreign policy grounds. Graham is running to be the hawkiest of the already-very-hawkish Republican field, and Chafee is going to challenge Hillary Clinton as being too hawkish on foreign policy. That's enough of a similarity to allow me to write a snappy headline, at the very least.

But rather than try to fit them both into some artificial construct of my own making, let's take a serious look at the two candidates, what they stand for and against, and then attempt to predict their chances in the race. And as I've done for the rest of these articles, I'm forgoing the use of snark for these candidate introductions -- but I do reserve the right to get snarky about them later, of course. Plenty of time for that in the weeks to come. For now, let's take a serious look at the two new entrants.

 

Lindsey Graham

Lindsey Graham has been one of the strongest proponents in Washington for the use of American military power overseas, for quite some time. He rivals John McCain, in fact, in his advocacy for the use of military force, and is quite comfortable stating his position on any and all Sunday political talk shows which will have him (which is a lot, it should be mentioned). This has given him a national prominence, which is spotlighted whenever questions of war arise.

Graham, unlike some other Republican hawks, can at least state that he has served in the military. He recently retired from the Air Force reserves with the rank of colonel, due to hitting the mandatory retirement age. He has never actually been on the front lines of a war, since he was commissioned straight out of college as a Judge Advocate officer (a military lawyer, in other words). Still, this is more actual military experience than many Republicans these days can claim, so Graham has to be given some credit for his military service among those who have never served at all.

When examining Graham's record outside of the question of foreign policy and military interventionism, it's hard to pigeonhole him as any sort of party-line Republican. He's gotten pretty downright mavericky over the years, most recently in taking on the Tea Party faction within his own party. This isn't a recent thing, either, as Graham was the only House Republican on the Judiciary Committee to vote against the impeachment of Bill Clinton back in 1998. This fits in with his own personal view of how Congress should operate, which is a much more traditional and accommodating view than most Republicans share today. Once he moved to the Senate, he's been notable for championing the power of presidents to nominate the candidates they like to the judiciary, refusing to vote against nominees on purely partisan grounds. Even when he doesn't agree with the judicial philosophy of nominees, he will vote for them anyway as long as he doesn't think they are patently unqualified to do the job. This has held true no matter which party holds the White House, and Graham voted to confirm both of President Obama's nominations to the Supreme Court. Graham was also instrumental in the "Gang of 14" who forged a compromise with Democrats who were blocking George W. Bush nominees (back in 2005), showing consistency in his beliefs on how the Senate should treat judicial nominees -- whether the president is Republican or Democratic.

Graham has also notably annoyed some Republicans by being willing to work with (and compromise with) Democrats on immigration reform. He's been at the center of many of the legislative efforts of the past decade to forge some sort reforms to America's broken immigration system. This has earned him quite a bit of pushback from within the Republican ranks, and he was "primaried" by a Tea Party candidate in his last election as a direct result (Graham went on to win the nomination handily, however). Graham is also outside his own party's mainstream on the issue of climate change, although his commitment to producing actual legislation to tackle the problem has noticeably weakened in recent years.

While all of this will doubtlessly be revisited by his fellow Republicans out on the campaign trail (especially if he begins rising in the polls), Graham's main issue is to be the strongest Republican advocate for the military and for the use of military force, seemingly at the drop of a hat at times. Just to give one example, he's been calling on the United States to pre-emptively bomb Iran since at least 2010. Graham is strongly and unquestioningly supportive of Israel, it almost goes without saying. It's hard to imagine a more hawkish Republican candidate for president, in fact, especially since both John McCain and John Bolton have announced they won't be running.

The real question is whether Graham will get any traction with the voters. After all, being the biggest hawk among a flock of other hawks doesn't differentiate you all that much. The only candidate on the Republican side who diverges in any way from hawkishness is Rand Paul, in fact -- pretty much all the others are at least moderately hawkish on all of Graham's issues. He will be trying to push this particular envelope as hard as he can, but it's to be assumed that most of the other Republicans running will simply echo Graham's talking points to defuse the issue entirely. Graham can push the whole field further towards interventionism, but he won't have to push them all that far, to put it another way.

Graham does have a certain amount of folksy charm and boyish looks, which goes a lot further on the campaign trail than many pundits are willing to admit. He could emerge from the pack and take up position in the frontrunner ranks, given the fickle nature of primary voters and the incredibly wide Republican field. But the further he rises, the more pointed the attacks will become from his fellow party members. Graham barely registers in the polling right now, but he may manage to get a bounce from announcing his campaign, so we'll have to wait and see how the Republican electorate reacts.

Graham's chances of winning the nomination are pretty small, considering the whole field. If he did indeed capture the nomination, it would certainly set up an interesting contest with Hillary Clinton, who has always been much more hawkish than most Democrats. At this point, however, Graham appears to be a longshot at best for both the nomination and the general election.

There is one interesting piece of trivia about Graham that the politically wonky will love. If he actually did become president, he'd be among a very small group of presidents who entered the White House without being married at the time. Four presidents (Jefferson, Jackson, Van Buren, and Arthur) were widowers when sworn in, but Graham's never been married. One president, Grover Cleveland, was a bachelor when he began his term, but then got married while serving as president. America's only ever had one president who had always been single and who stayed that way throughout his term: James Buchanan. If Lindsey Graham became president (and didn't marry while in office), he'd be only our second real "bachelor president."

 

Lincoln Chafee

The news that Lincoln Chafee is running for the Democratic nomination is somewhat surprising, mostly since he's only been an actual Democrat since 2013. Then again, Bernie Sanders is only reluctantly joining the party in order to get on all the Democratic state ballots, so maybe it's not that unusual this particular election cycle.

Chafee was pretty much the last holdout in the "liberal Republican" ranks (yes, there really used to be such creatures in Congress). He was named to the Senate in 1999 to replace his father John, who died while in office, and (mostly in honor of his dad) continued as a moderate, socially-liberal Republican throughout his Senate career. He was even ranked "to the left" of some conservative Democrats in the Senate, but he was defeated by an actual Democrat in the 2006 "Democratic wave" election. Chafee then began his political evolution, winning a Rhode Island governor's race as an Independent before officially signing up with the Democratic Party after Barack Obama's re-election.

The positions he took during his Senate career would have been unexceptional -- if he had been a Democrat, that is. He voted against the Bush tax cuts, supported increasing the minimum wage, and was against eliminating the estate tax, just for starters. He voted against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he opposed John Bolton's nomination to become the ambassador to the United Nations, and he was the only Republican to vote against Samuel Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court. He is strongly against the death penalty, but supports affirmative action and gun control. He's pro-choice and he signed the law legalizing gay marriage in Rhode Island while he was governor. As I said, pretty mainstream positions -- for a Democrat. About the only Republican party-line issue he was known for supporting was the privatization of Social Security, but I fully expect he's evolved by now on this issue to a more mainstream Democratic position, as well.

Lincoln Chafee, however, won't be challenging Hillary Clinton on economic issues. She will be fighting that particular fight against both Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley (and perhaps Jim Webb), but I don't expect there'll be a whole lot of difference between Clinton's and Chafee's ideas on what to do about inequality and the economy. Instead, Chafee sees his path to victory in the Democratic nomination as one where he's the only candidate challenging Hillary on her Iraq War vote. Clinton, as everyone knows, voted to authorize George W. Bush's war in Iraq while she was in the Senate, although she later regretted it and has renounced it as convincingly as she can manage. Contrast this with Chafee, who was the only Republican in the Senate to vote against the war authorization bill.

Now, this strategy might seem a tad bit dated, since the vote in question was held over a dozen years ago. However, Chafee might gain more traction than you might think among Democratic primary voters over the Iraq War vote, not because the voters are particularly interested in relitigating what happened back then, but more because they might be concerned about what a President Clinton would do in the future (as opposed to a President Chafee). It's not as backward-looking a strategy as it first appears, in other words. Clinton has acknowledged (in her book, for instance) that she was one of the more hawkish of President Obama's advisors on many problems in the Middle East, which does concern a great many in the ranks of Democratic primary voters. There's a lingering suspicion of Clinton's foreign policy decision-making, due in part to her historic candidacy. If she were the first female president, would she try to be more hawkish than a Democratic male would be? Sexist or not, this is indeed a valid concern for many Democrats.

Chafee looks to capitalize on this unease. The case he'll be making could be summed up as "America will be less likely to go to war" with him at the helm, as opposed to Clinton. For a war-weary electorate, this might resonate.

There is one other side issue where Chafee could, if he chooses, draw a very bright distinction between Hillary Clinton and himself. Clinton, while in the Senate, actually sponsored a law to make flag-burning illegal. This used to be an enormous wedge issue the Republicans deployed quite successfully against many Democrats, stretching all the way back to the 1980s. Hillary was, obviously, looking to deflect the issue by sponsoring a "have it both ways" law which skated around the First Amendment problem by making it illegal to burn a U.S. flag "with the primary purpose and intent to incite or produce imminent violence or a breach of the peace," but still, Clinton was one of only two co-sponsors of the bill (which failed). While Clinton did later vote against an anti-flag-burning amendment to the Constitution, the flag-burning bill is still on her record. Chafee was one of only a handful of Republicans to vote against the amendment. But this issue really does seem awfully backward-looking, since the Republicans have largely dropped the whole flag-burning legislative frenzy in the past decade or so. This means Chafee might not even bring it up on the campaign trail.

Lincoln Chafee's chances of becoming the Democratic nominee are slim, at best. His problem isn't going to be that he was so recently a Republican, since even as a Republican his record was pretty liberal. After all, two of the other Democratic candidates also have Republican pasts (Jim Webb, should he jump in the race, and former "Goldwater girl" Hillary Clinton), and Bernie Sanders has always called himself a Democratic Socialist. This isn't exactly the year for partisan purity for the Democrats, in other words.

Chafee's problem is likely going to be convincing Democratic primary voters that his one pet issue -- foreign policy -- is enough to choose him over Hillary Clinton. How much of a campaign can he make out of one war vote? How many voters honestly see him as more presidential than Clinton? His only real chance may be if Hillary stumbles badly somehow during the campaign, and the Democratic race becomes one between all the non-Hillary candidates. In that case, he might have a decent shot at the nomination, but he'd have to draw a clear distinction between himself, O'Malley, and Sanders (and any other candidates who might jump in). If he did somehow win the nomination, it would make for an interesting general election campaign, since pretty much any Republican not named Rand Paul is going to be a lot more hawkish than Hillary Clinton, that's for sure.

I'll close with a bit of trivia I picked up from a comment section on a random online Chafee article I read today. Because Chafee's got one dandy bumpersticker-sized campaign slogan he would be a fool not to use: "Democrats: The Party Of Lincoln." Just on the level of causing Republicans' teeth to gnash, I'd love to see that slogan deployed (but then maybe that's just me).

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

ChrisWeigant.com

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

Become a fan of Chris on The Huffington Post

 

This Blogger's Books and Other Items from...