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Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee on The Campbell Conversations (Pt 1)

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, left, speaks with Campbell Conversations host Grant Reeher

In the first of two-part interview, Grant Reeher discusses the current level of conflict and polarization between the two parties with Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee.  Chafee is particularly well-suited as an observer of this problem--when in the U.S. Senate he was known as a moderate Republican.  He left the party following his service there, and successfully ran for governor as an independent.  He's now a Democrat.  When Chafee was in the Senate, he was one of only two Republicans to vote against the Bush tax cuts, and the only Republican to vote against the Iraq War.  He looks back on that time, and also honestly describes how money influences politics, including his own behavior.

Note: Part two of the conversation with Gov. Chafee will air on WRVO on Sunday, May 11 at 6:00 p.m.


Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I’m joined today by Lincoln Chafee, the Governor of Rhode Island. Governor Chafee was elected to his position in 2010 as an Independent, having left the Republican Party following a re-election defeat for the U.S. Senate in 2006. In 2013, he became a Democrat. Prior to serving in the Senate, Governor Chafee served on the Warwick City Council and as that city’s Mayor. Governor Chafee, welcome to the program.

Lincoln Chafee: It’s great to be here Grant, thank you for inviting me.

GR: You’ve been at the center of some big discussions about politics in America, about the polarization between the parties and the level of conflict and nastiness involved there. You came from a long line of prominent Republicans, you were known as a centrist, a moderate, even perhaps a liberal Republican.  You then left the party, won the Governor’s seat as an Independent, now you’re a Democrat. So I want to explore all that a little bit with you. When did you first feel that there was a serious tension between you and the Republican Party?

LC: I think when my dad was sharing with me, as a member of the United States Senate as a Republican, after the election in 1994 and he was Chairman of the Environment & Public Works Committee and there was some tension with the incoming new Republicans that came over from the House--Republicans that had come over from the House into the Senate in that ’94 seismic Gingrich revolution. And they were questioning his positions and maybe even threatening to take away his chairmanship of his committee.  and I can remember him saying, just expressing frustrations, “for my long service to this party, how could they possibly question my integrity and how I feel about these issues and my commitment to the Party after these many decades?” And just frustration with these new fire-breathing Republicans.

GR: And what about for you as a political figure and the issues there, were there in particular, any issues that really came to be big problems for you in the Republican Party early on?

LC: No, I was mayor of my city, of Warwick, a city of about 85,000 in Rhode Island.  And a very Democratic city, but I had prevailed as Republican Mayor, the first Republican in 32 years, and working with a Democratic Council. But there wasn’t the same tensions and conflicts that I could hear my dad talk about down in Congress that were coming in with Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich and it was just getting more and more partisan. We didn’t see that back home in Rhode Island. I worked with the Democrats--you had to--to get things done.

GR: And what about, then, when you were in the Senate? Apparently there were some tensions that came up then.  What were the big sticking points?

LC: My dad died in office in 1999, late in 1999, and I was appointed to his seat.  I served for a year under President Clinton, and I could feel it then, as we came into the year 2000, an election year, and President Clinton’s last year. Trent Lott and Tom Daschle, and the battles that were going on, and the strictly party-line votes so often.  A small group of moderates--Olympia Snow, Susan Collins, Jim Jeffords, Arlen Specter, myself--would swing back and forth.  A few Democrats occasionally--John Breaux, Ben Nelson--would vote with Republicans, but there were precious few.  A lot of party-line votes.

GR: And my understanding is that you were the only Republican in the Senate to vote against the War in Iraq, is that correct?

LC: Well it started out even that year with Bill Clinton voting for raising the minimum wage.  We had votes that the Republicans didn’t want on prescription drug benefits, we had votes on some gun safety issues, and so I was a little bit out of step right off the bat with the Republican Majority.  And then Bush and Cheney got elected and it was the big tax cuts which I voted against. John McCain and I were the only Republicans to vote ultimately in the final vote against those big tax cuts and then some environmental issues that I opposed the President. But then finally, the war in Iraq was the big one.

GR: Tell me a little about that, the decision there and what you went through.

LC: I think really just to back up, the tax cuts.  Before September 11, that was the first real battle--these huge tax cuts that favored the wealthy and made no sense.  We’d fought so hard to get surpluses over decades, finally achieved them, and here came in a 1.5 trillion dollar tax cut that favored the wealthy. For the President, to ram that through with only two Republicans voting against it, I think set the stage for a strong executive feud – it made no sense that we finally took these surpluses and squandered them.  Everybody knew it’s possible that catastrophe could happen, or natural disaster.  A better way to use this new money, surpluses we generated, would be to invest in our country and in education and infrastructure, and yet we gave it all back to the wealthy, and so I lost my faith in the President and the Vice President’s decision making then.

I questioned them right from the beginning of what their agenda was, especially since it was so different from what they campaigned on, and so when the march to war in Iraq came, and the premise that there was weapons of mass destruction, I just didn’t believe it. I’d come not to believe what they said and I just never saw the evidence that Sadam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

In fact I went down to the CIA and I said “I have to vote on this, can you show me everything you have that might show these weapons of mass destruction before I go in and vote? I don’t believe them, I haven’t seen the evidence, but maybe you can convince me.” And there were about 20 analysts at a table and they showed me satellite pictures and different maps and things, and it was just totally unconvincing.  I was the only one, I had no staff, I was just alone and I didn’t want to embarrass myself and show my ignorance at what I was looking at, but what I noticed more than anything was that those 20 CIA analysts--there weren't any directors or anything like that, but they were the analysts--it was their body language.  They weren’t going, “Senator, you’ve got to see, there’s this absolutely convincing chemical weapons lab!” There was none of that. “You’ve got to see this missile launching site!” It just wasn’t that.  They unrolled the maps and they stood back and so I said to myself, “They don’t even believe this." And then finally they handed me an aluminum tube that was supposed to centrifuge uranium, something about uranium.  I’m looking at it thinking, “I could buy this down at Mancini’s Hardware, in North Kingstown.”  If there was another premise to go to war I would be willing to listen to it, I but I didn’t believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.  I was right in the end.

GR: And, I’m very curious, if you can share this, what the discussions in the caucus might have been like over this. I imagine, since you’re the only one who’s going to vote against it, did you speak in the caucus?  What was the reaction there?

LC:  I came back from that CIA meeting and we had a Thursday lunch with Republican.  I remember standing up and saying I'd been to the CIA, and I was totally unconvinced.  People just weren’t listening.  I'd had good relations with my fellow Republican senators, and usually they listen, but on this one their minds were made up.  I remember Mike DeWine from Ohio saying to me; “I think you’re right, but everybody’s mind is made up.”

And I think it was just political.  They knew the people were angry, they knew the people were scared--two dangerous emotions. We were not making good decisions.  We just finished with Vietnam, with all the veterans who were finally dealing with all their veterans’ issues, and we had to be very careful about these kind of foreign interventions, I thought.

GR:. So what finally pushed you over in the end to actually turn in your Republican membership card?

LC: Well I was caught, because I was increasingly getting just disenfranchised and disaffiliated with the agenda of the Republican Party--environmental issues, fiscal issues, foreign intervention issues. But, I was in the majority party as a Senator, the President won reelection in 2004, we had a Republican Senate, a Republican House, I was in position to deliver for Rhode Island being in the majority.  If I left the party, my state would be penalized; I wouldn’t get the federal aid, the military bases would suffer, the highway bill – which we were debating at the time, huge bill, hundreds of billions of dollars. Rhode Island would get nothing. So I was kind of caught. I had to look out for my state, and finally when I did not succeed in my reelection I very quietly went down to my local board of canvassers and disaffiliated and became an independent.  And it was kind of interesting.  The clerk at the small town where I disaffiliated, she said “You can’t do that, your dad wouldn’t let you, you gotta stay a Republican!” And I said “No I’ve thought about it long and hard in the six months since I lost my election, so I’ve given a lot of thought about this. I want to disaffiliate.”  She said, “Well you can’t! I’m not gonna let you!" And I said “Let me think about it a little more,” and I went out to my car, and I said “No I’ve thought about this! I’m going back in.” I turned right back in and disaffiliated.

GR: Now let me fast forward a little bit.  You became an independent, but I want to shift to the decision to join the Democrats in 2013. You joined the Democrats in 2013.  What prompted that decision?

LC: I found governing as an independent harder than I thought.  I know Angus King and Jesse Ventura have had success in Maine and Minnesota. I found it very, very hard, and the economy was tough in Rhode Island. People were stressed out – small issues became big issues, and I had no political party that had my back during some of these tough times, and so I thought, should I join the Libertarians or join the Greens? What are my options? I knew I didn’t want to go back to being a Republican, and I made the decision to become a Democrat and was very happy. I think that the tradition of standing up for the middle class is really the key issue that I’m proud to be a Democrat about. For all my memory,  that’s been a Democratic issue, we’re going to grow the middle class.  Especially with the 50th anniversary of LBJ and the Great Society, grow the middle class – that’s the key to a successful community, city, country, state, whatever.

GR: And with all the polarization that exists in the national political climate right now, I’m very curious to know, have prominent Democrats around the country and in the state embraced you for this? I would think that perhaps, again, polarization might make them a little suspicious of this on their part.

LC: Yes, well certainly it was an evolution.  And then joining the Democrats, maybe I waited too long.  As other Democrats naturally wanted to run for Governor of Rhode Island, some interpreted this as politically expedient, but I thought long and hard about where I wanted to find a home.  As I mentioned other political parties didn’t seem to fit – and so this was, I think in my long term political best interest. I know other members of my family have become Democrats, so I think it’s something my dad would also completely understand and support.

GR: You’re listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO. I’m Grant Reeher, we’ll continue the conversation after a short break.

GR: I want to come back to this problem of polarization and the level of nastiness and dysfunction that we seem to see between the parties in Washington. What’s driving it at the end of the day, do you think?

LC: We talked earlier about Rush Limbaugh and talk radio, and you can add to that FOX News, and just the divide between what people are reading and listening to and watching.  That certainly is a factor. You have this polarization in the media as well, as then of course many of the experts have talked about the primaries, and I saw it firsthand. I know the Maine Senator is always worried about primaries. I had one myself in 2006--I won it--from a candidate funded by the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that funneled millions of dollars into various races, particularly into Rhode Island.

GR: This is back when you were a Republican, getting challenged from the Right?

LC: That’s right, that’s right. Here I was in a very blue state, if not the most Democratic state in the country, trying to hold onto a Republican seat, and I get primaried by a right-wing Club for Growth Republican that had no chance in the general election, absolutely zero chance.  It made no sense practically to challenge me, but it’s just for ideological purity. So these primaries drag the candidates to the fringes, especially on the Republican side with the Tea Party, the media.  It’s a combination of factors and certainly gerrymandering of districts--are people safe in their districts? There should be some overlap of red and blue in some of these districts so the candidates talk more about issues that are central to both sides: education, healthcare, jobs.

GR: How do these things play out inside the state of Rhode Island? Do you see the same kind of level of nastiness and polarization, or are things a little better inside the state?

LC: For my term as Governor, we’ve had these, as I call them “small issues,” turn into big issues.  Getting illegal immigrants in Rhode Island to have in-state tuition--to me it just made complete sense to have these youngsters that are here finish high school, because they’re not going to finish high school if they can’t afford to go to college. And then to get into University of Rhode Island, or Rhode Island College or Community College of Rhode Island with in-state tuition.  If they can’t afford the tuition, that’s not in our best interest as a society to have uneducated youngsters out there. But that became a huge issue with massive protests.

And I was involved in a capital punishment case.  Repeatedly I’ve said in my political career that I’m opposed to capital punishment and that’s a policy that you can question me on.  That’s how I was elected.  That became a big issue.  A Christmas tree all of a sudden--a war on Christmas? I mean, that’s not why I got into public service

GR: You were calling it a holiday tree, right?

LC: Yeah, my predecessor called it a holiday tree.  When the time came to celebrate the holidays I just said “do what they did last year, don’t spend any more, don’t spend any less and do what they did.” And for some reason it boomeranged back on me. So, I’ve seen this partisan kind of anger erupt in Rhode Island.

GR: Is there anything as Governor that you’ve tried to do to engender more cross-party collaboration? Things that you’ve done with the state house or the communities?

When I first got elected I worked very, very hard to have a bipartisan administration. Have former office holders from the Democratic Party in my administration.  I have candidates that ran as Republicans in my administration. Everybody’s saying, “Wow you’ve reached across all political lines in forming a team!” So I’ve made every effort possible, I thought, to say “Let’s focus on the job at hand, getting our economy going, and dealing with the issues that affect Rhode Islanders together. The election's over, and when it's time to have an election, let’s go at it hammering tongs, but right now let’s focus on getting the job done, and I’m willing to do it with anybody.

GR: I want to pursue this just a little bit more.  I’m on the e-mail lists for both of the national parties, and each of them seems to devote most of its time to telling me why the other side is bad, sometimes even evil, the way they describe it. So what will it take at the national level to generate more cross-party work and more function versus dysfunction?

Well that’s the question we’re all asking, and we talked about it a little bit earlier.  These primaries and the gerrymandering of districts, safe house districts. The perpetual campaigns, you’re getting mailings, continually from both sides.  The quest to raise money, especially after Citizens United. Everybody’s out there fundraising 24/7, but ultimately I have faith in the American people to sift through all the noise and make good decisions. We’re kind of at a moment here where this partisanship just seems to go on without end. But they’ve, we’ve got, to get weary of this, and there’s so many challenges we have in this country.  Get back to our stature as a world leader in so many ways, we just have to get that back, and put these petty differences aside. Or, bring them up in campaigns, during the time when the battle rages, but now it's perpetual. If the citizens demanded of their elected officials, once the election's over, to focus on the job at hand put the partisan political rhetoric aside, and then when the campaign comes we’ll listen to you.

GR: Well that was actually, you touched on that last point I wanted to ask you about. There are two things that sometimes I hear as possible ways that this problem might get fixed.  One is the one that you mentioned, which is if voters start really seriously holding candidates accountable for the way that they campaign, in addition to the positions that they’re holding. And the other one is, if one of these two parties just gets a big boost or a big electoral shock, big enough to sort of get them to say “Wait a minute, we need to rethink all of this.”

LC:  Yes, I thought that that was going to happen to the Republican Party back in 2000, when I won my race for the Senate. The Republicans lost a number of seats and in the end the Senate was 50-50 and I thought “boy the voters have spoken.” Olympia Snowe won, Jim Jeffords won, Linc Chafee won, and the moderates won their races. But a number, John Ashcroft lost, Bill Roth lost. A number of Republicans lost in that 2000 elections, and I thought here's a message, maybe we’ll change. And then of course September 11th happened and things changed, and Republicans got more seats in 2002 and the President won re-election, got more seats in 2004.

And then after the economy cratered and Barack Obama, Senator Obama, got elected President, I thought wow, maybe now the Republicans will start re-thinking, but they bounced back in 2010, even in 2009, that quickly, even with all the bad tax policies that brought back the deficits, the failed war in Iraq. Back they came, with winning Virginia, they won New Jersey in that off year, and then they won Scott Brown’s race for Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts, all in that off year. It turned so fast back to the Republicans and of course in 2010 winning the House. But, President Obama winning re-election eased the momentum. I think as we look ahead for the Republicans, I think as we look ahead in 2014, that the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, being a prime issue for the Republicans, I think it’s a good one to have a big national debate on, and good for the Democrats. Ultimately, I know it had a tough roll-out but, people do want healthcare, affordable healthcare. And they don’t want to have to go to the emergency room and wait 5 hours for primary care.  I think the democrats are going to win on this issue.

GR:  Now, another thing that gets talked about in this vein is the effect of money on politics, and almost every elected politician will say, "Money is a problem but it doesn’t affect me, doesn’t affect what I do. So let me ask you this, what is the nature of the influence of money? Does it matter for you?

Absolutely.  It’s time consuming.  Without a doubt, it affects your voting, who’s contributing to you, and it just naturally does. And, with Citizens United now, and independent expenditures, and the fear that this money is going to infiltrate not just the big Senate races and House races and Governors’ races, but down to the local races, is of concern. But once again, you have to have faith in the voters to sift through all this and be suspicious of large amounts of money that are being spent. Where is it coming from?

GR: You mentioned a bit earlier the concern for the middle class and you have spoken about the growing economic inequality in the United States, the challenges faced by both the poor and the middle class. I wanted to mentioned that there’s a recent study of United States policymaking by a couple of researchers – one at Princeton, one at Northwestern -- that’s getting a bit of press lately.  It has argued that the United States really is no longer a democracy; it's actually more like an oligarchy.  What these two researchers have done is look at the public opinion polls about certain policies and contrast them with the positions taken by powerful interests, and then look at the policy outcomes. And they’ve found that over the last twenty years, or the 20 year period that they looked at in recent history, that it’s really no contest--the popular position is not the one that manifests itself in policy outcomes. So, do you think that they’re right? Is the United States now an oligarchy?

LC: Who’s spending the most money wins, and I think what’s going to contest that premise is that the young people are going to get involved more in the elections. The millennials, this generation, is really tuning in to what’s happening. They’re personally affected.  I think they’re concerned themselves coming out of the school, finding it difficult to find job, watching the chaos that has happened the last number of years with the economy, and they want to look at the issues.  And you know the young people back in the 60’s and 70’s and the effect they had on elections. I think that might happen again with the new generation, I’m very proud of what they’re thinking, and they’re analyzing and looking through all of the social media and trying to sift through some of the noise out there.

GR: Do you think that the middle class and the poor are right to be angry about things in this country?

LC: I don’t think they’re angry enough, you just see how well the wealthy are doing, and nonetheless the middle class, too many of them are tuning into Fox News and supporting some of these Republican programs that favor the wealthy. And so I’d wish that the middle-class were saying “This isn’t working for me, these Republican policies.” We tried trickle-down, whatever you want to call it, all these tax cuts, and they just don’t work. No politician wants taxes, but we want social programs to grow the middle class.  In particular, look at education, whether it’s Pell Grants – Pell Grants work! It’s not just the wealthy that can go to college, anybody can go out and get a Pell Grant if you’re qualified for it, go out and get a higher education. That was a fabulous a social program started by Senator Pell from Rhode Island, I’ll note. And of course, Head Start.  Why should the wealthy go to Pre-K and learn the alphabet and a little bit how to read, and get a head start?  Head Start was a federal program that helped build the middle class. So that’s the argument us Democrats have to make to the voters, in particular the middle class. These are beneficial social programs, the federal government. All governments can be a force for good in your life, and we'll be careful of all your tax dollars and not wasteful, but there are programs that work.

GR: We’ll have to leave it there but we’ll pick up the conversation next week. That was Lincoln Chafee.  Again I’ll continue the conversation with him next week when we look more closely at his time as Governor. Governor Chafee, thanks so much for talking with me

LC: My pleasure, Grant.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.