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Chafee Finds His Groove: Emerging as a Republican "John Breaux"

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET
  • Steve Clemons Washington Editor at Large of The Atlantic and founder and senior fellow of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation.

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This has been a tough week. A prominent conservative pol knocked me around a bit in some private communications and caused some real stress because of the view by his staff member that I am a "firebrand" -- a really good one in his view. And on the left, a prominent pol went "nuts" on me in an email because of positive commentary on the blog about Lincoln Chafee, John McCain, and ironically -- Bill Frist. This individual somehow thinks that my blog has more impact than it could possibly have and that my "centrism will tilt the election back towards a corrupt cabal of Republicans."

I am going to stand strong where I am -- and will be fair-minded with edges, hopefully being a firebrand at the right times and a fair interpreter and negotiator at others.

Folks that want to carve out space in the "principled middle" or the "radical center," as I like to call it, have a tough time. The world expects such centrists to be weak, squishy compromisers between the right and left -- but they sometimes don't know what to do when one vigorously works against John Bolton's confirmation but then applauds the President and some of his key architects for emptying America's black site prisons abroad.

We need people in the middle who still have edges. I have eges on John Bolton's UN confirmation, clearly -- but I will always deal with him respectfully if we find ourselves in a room together or even in an interview (could happen someday). I will wrestle with the politics and profile of prominent presidential pretenders, highlighting what I see as their deficits and their strengths.

Last year, after Senator Lincoln Chafee failed to align his many statements of concern about John Bolton with his confirmation vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I was extremely tough on him. I thought he deserved the critique I offered, but I was also a bit over the top. Passion was running high that day.

But I am equally passionate about Chafee's show of strength of late -- and despite some readers of this blog who take serious exception to my views on the Rhode Island Senator -- I want to make clear that the Lincoln Chafee we have seen in the Senate these last few months is the kind of American senator I personally wish we had more of in BOTH parties.

One of the calculations that I believe that Lincoln Chafee made when he supported Bolton last year is that he figured John Bolton was an obscure government bureaucrat ascending to a job few Americans cared about. A vote in his favor would be seen by the White House as playing nice with the Cheney gang, and the consequences would be minor.

Chafee also correctly calculated that the Bolton vote would be less significant to Rhode Island voters than his votes on controversial judicial nominees. He was absolutely right -- as long as the Bolton vote didn't come back up.

What Chafee underestimated -- as did the White House -- is that John Bolton became a household name in the country and political space was created to robustly oppose the Ambassador. But ultimately, Chafee's decision on judicial votes being more memorable to voters was right.

I want to remind the American public and Rhode Island voters of Lincoln Chafee's opposition to Samuel Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court. It was a brave and correct position.

For the record, I supported the confirmation of John Roberts and opposed Samuel Alito. Such is the fate of those in the genuine radical center.

But remind yourself of Chafee's concerns about Alito stated before the confirmation hearings:

CHAFEE STATEMENT ON SUPREME COURT NOMINEE

The President's nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court raises many concerns and I intend to focus on a number of key issues during the nomination hearings before the Judiciary Committee.

In 1990, Judge Alito joined the federal bench on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. During the past fifteen years, Judge Alito has taken many positions that appear to place him at odds with the protection of key fundamental rights. It is vital that the Senate carefully examine these cases as we conduct our hearings to provide the necessary advice and consent on this nomination.

In 1991, Judge Alito showed a narrow view of a woman's right to choose. He was the lone dissenter in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, (947 F.2d 682; 1991) where Judge Alito asserted that it was constitutional for Pennsylvania to require a woman to inform her husband before obtaining an abortion. The Supreme Court of the United States reached the exact opposite conclusion, ruling that this Pennsylvania law was unconstitutional.

Judge Alito's writings appear to give considerable latitude to state governments as they attempt to place restrictions on a woman's right to choose. Judge Alito has also taken a narrow view of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. He was alone in dissent in ruling that Congress did not have the authority to restrict the sale of machine guns. In United States of America v. Rybar, (103 F.3rd 273; 1996), Judge Alito ignored more than fifty years of constitutional law in an effort to narrow the power of Congress to enact legislation. This is concerning to me, in that this view of the Constitution calls into question the authority of Congress to enact key laws to protect the welfare of all Americans, including environmental legislation to protect the quality of our air and water and to protect endangered species.

Lincoln Chafee went on to vote no on Alito's confirmation. That was the right call.

I think he is making exactly the right call in opposing John Bolton this time around -- but whether he remains on course on Bolton this Tuesday afternoon or not, I do admire "deliberative" Senators.

Chafee is increasingly cutting his own groove and making his own weather. I see him less as a victim of the stormy battles between both parties and more of a principled player between the parties -- potentially becoming a "Republican John Breaux." (the "Centrist Coalition" part of Breaux's complex profile)

So, there it is. I know I will get an avalanche of email about this post -- but after the really out-of-line battles I had this week with thin-skinned top tier personalities on the Republican and Democratic side, I need to put down my marker for those who see policy decisions in pragmatic ways and set aside ideology when the nation's interests are at stake.

Lincoln Chafee is coming into his own and has found his voice -- and groove.

-- Steve Clemons is Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note