You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Party of Lincoln

On the Hill

When Lincoln Chafee learned that George W. Bush was nominating John Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations, his heart sank. As a moderate Republican senator from Rhode Island, Chafee must constantly choose between his conservative party and his liberal instincts (and constituents). Such choices clearly torment the genial New Englander.

"I remember when the secretary of state called and said the president is going to appoint John Bolton," says Chafee, who knew, as a key swing vote on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he would attract plenty of attention during Bolton's confirmation hearings. "Just leaving Rhode Island to come down, the whole way back to Washington, I felt some kind of dread." The memory brought to Chafee's face the anguished look of a "Fear Factor" contestant eating an eyeball. "Of course I want to be a team player, but, my gosh, that's a heavy load!"

These days, Chafee's life is one heavy load after another. Arguably Washington's chief Republican heretic, Chafee was alone among Senate Republicans in opposing the Iraq war resolution and one of two against the 2001 Bush tax cuts; last month, he joined two other Republican moderates in voting against his party's annual budget resolution. But lately, he's been trying to make some amends with the party he has spent the past few years needling. That's because Chafee faces a rough reelection campaign next year. And he understands that, without the help of the very Republicans he infuriates, he could be toast.

Chafee is an unlikely figure to be at the center of such intense political currents. He has a preternaturally serene disposition, and none of the manic tendencies of some of his more zealous colleagues. When I met with him one recent morning, he was still groggy from a late budget vote. "We were here until 1 a.m.," he said somewhat plaintively. Amid the talk of politics and policy, few things seemed to excite him more than a discussion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the mention of which caused him to hop up and retrieve a calendar with images of the pristine reserve. "I was up in the Refuge just this month, way on top of the world," he said, almost dreamily. "The rolling grasslands! …The wildlife! … The caribou! … All sorts of brown squirrels and prairie chickens." For a moment he was lost in a reverie.

But recently, he's been in the throes of an unforgiving political reality. For weeks, Chafee said he was "inclined" to support Bolton's nomination, but later mused to a reporter that Rhode Islanders were "overwhelmingly" opposed to it.Nevertheless, he seemed ready to back Bolton--until Ohio Republican George Voinovich balked in an April 19 committee hearing, after which Chafee hemmed and hawed again. As The New Republic went to press, Chafee was pledging to vote for Bolton--but no one would be shocked if he wavered yet another time (or two, or three).

The Bolton fight is just the latest will-he-or-won't-he saga of Chafee's Senate career. Last fall, for instance, he suggested that he would support Bush for president, then withdrew his endorsement, and finally cast a write-in vote for George Bush--senior. Then, on Election Day itself, Chafee kicked off a new drama when he said he wouldn't rule out changing parties; Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid urged him to defect. But a week later, Chafee declared that he would, in fact, remain a Republican. For now. The legendary Providence Journal political columnist Charlie Bakst pronounced this "an excruciating episode that has done the senator no good in Rhode Island or in Washington."

Chafee has been walking this tightrope from the day he arrived in the Senate in 1999 to fill the seat of his late father, Republican John Chafee. But an increasingly nasty political climate makes it difficult. Chafee often votes with Democrats but dutifully attends his party's weekly lunches. "I argue in caucus, I make my points even knowing I'm vastly outnumbered," Chafee says. "But, at the same time, I understand they'd like to grab me by the lapels and say, 'Are you ever going to support the president's agenda?'" One result is that Chafee is something of a loner on the Hill."He wanders the halls alone," says one Senate Democratic aide.

Exasperated as they are, however, Republicans are now riding to Chafee's rescue as he faces possible challenges from both his left and right. Conservatives are urging Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, a hard-edged populist, to mount a primary challenge. (One Republican said to be egging on Laffey is Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who would like to be rid of Chafee's dissident vote on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which Inhofe chairs.) Laffey would be a tough foe: Rhode Island may be liberal, but its Republican primary voters are very conservative; internal polling by both parties shows Laffey trouncing Chafee.

But the Republican establishment, convinced that only a moderate like Chafee can survive in liberal Rhode Island, is trying to keep Laffey out of the race. National GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman has called Laffey personally to ask him not to run. Meanwhile, top Republican senators, including Majority Leader Bill Frist and conservative Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, have recently hosted fund-raisers for Chafee. Former Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie has another lined up.

Even if Laffey doesn't run, Chafee will need his party's helping hand. Rhode Island voted for John Kerry by a 60-39 margin, guaranteeing an uphill fight for any Republican, even one with a locally famous family name. Two Rhode Island Democrats are vying to face him in the general election--the young secretary of state, Matt Brown, and the fortuitously named Sheldon Whitehouse, a former state attorney general. Chafee lucked out when the state's top two Democrats--Representatives Patrick Kennedy and Jim Langevin--each passed on the race. But even the lesser-known Brown and Whitehouse are plenty threatening. One recent poll showed Chafee beating both men but garnering less than 50 percent against each--the classic sign of an endangered incumbent. And, while Democrats have spent much of the past few years complimenting Chafee's courage and principle, that storyline is starting to change. They are now calling attention to Chafee's repeated votes for Bush's judicial nominees and Cabinet officials, and his backing for Bush's latest proposal to apply price-indexing to Social Security. "He's supposed to be this great maverick-slash-moderate," says one Democratic strategist. "But, at the end of the day, he lacks a certain conviction."

Such talk reflects an understanding among Democrats that their road back to a Senate majority probably requires them to take on Republican moderates about whom they feel a reservoir of goodwill. Just as the GOP has steadily knocked off conservative Southern Democrats, even those willing to work with them on occasion, Democratic strategists say they must do the same. Meanwhile, a Senate Democratic leadership aide says the party has virtually given up hope of getting Chafee to defect. Not only does Chafee apparently harbor a sentimental fidelity to his father's party, but he has already cast his lot with the GOP's 2006 campaign apparatus.

A desire to build Republican goodwill in the face of this new Democratic enmity could be one reason Chafee has been more supportive of Bolton than many Democrats had expected. Democrats point to an interview Chafee gave last December to the Associated Press, in which he suggested that his coming election made him more likely to side with the president: "You tend to be supportive as you come into the [election] cycle. If I need their help occasionally, I'm going to have to help them," Chafee said. (He did add, "I'm not going to sacrifice my principles, either.") Chafee insists that he has always given deference to presidential nominees; but he can't be unaware of the White House's keen interest in his vote.

There's no easy solution for Chafee. As one Rhode Island GOP operative sympathetic to Laffey puts it, Chafee is "on the horns of a dilemma: What makes him a strong general election candidate makes him a weak primary candidate. And what makes him a strong primary candidate hurts him in the general." When I met with him, Chafee seemed despairing of the campaign labors ahead during a coming Senate recess. "Being in cycle, as they call it"--he sighs--"it's hard work, it's always work, work, work. Fund-raising, going all over the state. So recesses you go home and hustle." Just thinking about it seemed to make him tired. It's a heavy load indeed.

This article originally ran in the May 23, 2005 issue of the magazine.