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Missing Linc

The "accidental Senator" Lincoln Chafee's unlikely path to political stardom

Darren McCollester/Getty

On The Hill

Twenty-five years before he became the most unlikely star in the U.S. Senate, Lincoln Chafee was a shaggy-haired nomad, fresh from a drug-enhanced stint at Brown University, shoeing horses at harness racetracks in the United States and Canada. His father, Senator John Chafee, may have been a titan of Rhode Island politics, but Linc, as he is known, had little interest in the family business. It wasn't until he grew bored with the private sector--he was working as a manager in a steel mill at the time--that he decided to enter public life. "The impetus for getting into politics," Chafee recently told a Gannett reporter, "was the lack of excitement in the new jobs." Not quite as powerful an epiphany as, say, Vietnam or Watergate, but there you have it.

So when Linc Chafee was named to fill his late father's seat in November 1999, he didn't exactly seem destined to become a Senate powerhouse. But some politicians thrust themselves into the limelight, and some have the limelight thrust onto them. And ever since CNN reported that the liberal Republican Chafee had come "far closer" to leaving the GOP this spring than people realized, his every utterance has been exhaustively parsed for signs that he might follow in the footsteps of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords. Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle has personally approached him about switching parties, offering (according to Chafee) unspecified "inducements." President Bush has hosted Chafee in the Oval Office, jokingly comparing him to a visiting foreign dignitary. Since Jeffords's switch, Chafee, who didn't appear on a single major network TV show during his first 18 months in office, has popped up on "Crossfire," "Hardball" (twice), "Inside Politics," and Fox News.

But the comparisons between Chafee and Jeffords overlook some rather significant differences. Jeffords is widely considered to be one of the strongest minds in the Senate. Chafee--sometimes called "Missing Linc" during his time on the city council in Warwick, Rhode Island--is not. Jeffords's defection was the culmination of decades of congressional conflict over cherished policies like special education and the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact. Chafee, a kind of accidental senator, has served less than two years. No one really knows what he cares about, which makes him dangerously unpredictable. One Rhode Island politico suspects Chafee doesn't take being a senator--or being a Republican--very seriously at all and might switch because "[h]e's the kind of guy who can wake up one day and say, `Yeah, I'll do it.'" Another observer compares him to Chauncy Gardner, the charmed naif from the Peter Sellers film Being There who blunders obliviously into Washington power games and becomes a celebrity when his simple aphorisms about gardening are misinterpreted as profound political insights. If you're a Washington Republican, it's hard to avoid the sense that history may be repeating itself--first as tragedy, now as farce.

Lincoln Chafee's life trajectory almost makes George W. Bush's look careerist. Like W., Chafee benefited from an exceptional pedigree. The Chafees were one of Rhode Island's founding "five families," a landed aristocracy with a concentration of wealth and power achievable only in a state so small. By the time Linc graduated from Brown in 1975, his father had already served as Rhode Island governor and secretary of the Navy, and he was soon to be a U.S. senator. But Linc had little interest in a life of wasp noblesse oblige. His time in college was, as he puts it, "experimental"--he has admitted to using marijuana and cocaine "several times" while there. After graduation he decamped to a horse-shoeing school in bohemian Bozeman, Montana, after which he bounced through a variety of horse-racing and factory jobs before returning to Rhode Island in 1983. There he spent six years as a city councilman in Warwick, the state's second-largest city--a job for which he was, unsurprisingly, not prepared. (One critic says that initially Chafee "had no grasp" of local issues.) And, after being elected Warwick's mayor in 1992, he cemented an emerging reputation for eccentricity by using taxpayer dollars to pay for, among other things, pet frogs for his office aquarium. When Chafee's father died suddenly in 1999, Rhode Island's Republican governor appointed Lincoln Chafee to fill the seat.

When Chafee had to face voters in 2000, after less than a year in office, Republicans feared they might lose a seat they had counted on for decades. Chafee, though by all accounts decent and genial, was uncomfortable on the stump and prone to oddball statements and painfully long pauses. "There were people who said, after watching him, `My God, I cannot believe this is a U.S. senator,'" says a former aide to Chafee's opponent, Representative Bob Weygand. But Democrats got bogged down in a bloody primary fight that centered on abortion. And Chafee benefited from the memory of his beloved father. Some local pollsters even speculated that some Rhode Island voters thought Linc was his father. Chafee wound up trouncing Weygand by 15 points.

From the start, Washington conservatives saw Chafee as susceptible to bullying. White House Chief of Staff Andy Card called The Providence Journal to suggest Chafee was "naive" for thinking Democrats were interested in bipartisanship. When Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot "interviewed" Chafee in March, he subjected the senator to an exceptional browbeating--and then wrote about it as if he were the senior partner in the exchange: "Every objection he offers is easily answered. Yet he still won't budge.... Mr. Chafee sounds like a man searching for some excuse, any excuse, to vote no, just to prove a point, whatever it is." Finally, the supply-side Club for Growth retaliated against Chafee's opposition to the tax cut with TV attack ads.

As with Jeffords, the hardball tactics have helped Chafee at home. Local columnists ridiculed the Club for Growth ads. "A COMERCIAL MEANT TO HURT ACTUALY HELPS," one Providence Journal headline declared. "Texas bully talk doesn't impress many people around these parts," wrote a local columnist. "Furthermore, incurring the displeasure of George W. Bush isn't going to lose you any votes." A recent Brown University poll showed that 59 percent of Rhode Island voters think Chafee is doing a "good" job or an "excellent" job, compared with 34 percent for Bush.

Close observers of Jeffords realized he would react angrily to right-wing bullying on behalf of right-wing policies. But no one is exactly sure how Chafee will react, and his behavior so far doesn't exactly suggest a coherent pattern. In a recent interview with The Providence Journal, for instance, Chafee said he'd reconsider switching if Republicans took back control of the Senate. No one seems to know whether he was serious; an aide downplays the comment by saying it was the product of fuzzy thinking at six o'clock in the morning. On the question of switching, his spokesman tells me Chafee's position is "never say never"--the Washington equivalent of "I'm thinking about it"--and Chafee recently confessed that he's drawn up a list of defection pros and cons. Some Rhode Island Democratic political operatives aren't even convinced Chafee is the one who'll make the decision. One suggests that Linc is driven mainly by his chief of staff, Dave Griswold, who held the same position under Linc's father. "I think Griswold is really the key behind the whole operation," he says. "He's really running the show."

The local observers who believe Chafee does have a strategy think it's probably to scare the GOP but ultimately to stay put. "The widely accepted view here in Rhode Island is that he's not going to switch," says an aide to one state Democrat. Chafee, locals say, feels an inherited loyalty to the Republican Party; he recently told the Los Angeles Times that he didn't switch parties this spring after asking himself, "What would my father think?" What's more, a change of parties would not be quite the freebie it was for Jeffords, who has been a popular figure in his state for decades. If Chafee became a Democrat, he would be virtually guaranteed a primary challenge from the left, party activists say. If, like Jeffords, Chafee turned independent, there's no guarantee he'd prevail in a three-way race. By contrast, "[a]s a Republican facing future general elections I don't see anyone on the horizon who could beat him," says pollster and Brown University political scientist Darrell West. Some believe Chafee has never seriously contemplated switching but is using his media moment to buff poll numbers at home and elevate himself from backbencher to minor celebrity in Washington. Says one Democratic Rhode Island politico: "The term `dumb like a fox' comes to mind."

But, dumb or not, Democrats would love to have Chafee. And, in their yearning, they have noticed a deep wisdom in his goofiness. "Obviously Democrats have underestimated him," says one party strategist. "Shoeing horses and smoking dope when most of these guys were running for city council is broadening and empowering in a way that most of these guys don't understand." Or, as the fictional U.S. president in Being There says after one of Chauncy's truisms about gardening: "I admire your good, solid sense. That's precisely what we lack on Capitol Hill." Chauncy just smiles obliviously and shakes his powerful new friend's hand.