Sunday, January 16, 2005

Linc Chafee, Man of Mystery

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has been busy fighting the good fight against Social Security reform lately, and on Friday he commented that Rhode Island’s own Lincoln Chafee, the Bluest Republican in Captivity, seemed to be in a good position to head up a Republican rebellion against SS reform should he so choose. Chafee, as is often the case, is at odds with the administration over the need for SS reform, having commented last month that he sees the Prez’s plans as being fiscally irresponsible in light of the huge budget deficits the Boy King is piling up. However, he has been relatively silent on the matter since then.

Chafee is going to be an interesting guy to watch on SS and everything else over the next few years. He made a fair amount of noise about his dissatisfaction with the administration last term and throughout the election cycle, capped by an announcement to the press that he wrote in Dubya’s daddy for President in November. His comments following the election also led many to believe that he was closer than ever to switching parties. But he decided to stay put, stating at the time—in an appropriately contrite tone, as I recall—that he was sorry he created such a fuss, and that he preferred to work within the party in order to bring it back to the center.

I don’t know that this series of events hurt him much in Washington. He was already the object of scorn and ridicule among the Alpha Republicans in the Senate, and those who know him and respect him could hardly have been surprised by his comments (see, for example, Matt Bai’s excellent 2003 profile of Chafee, "A Party of One," in the New York Times Magazine; sorry, gotta pay for it).

However, it’s put him in the position of annoying both Republicans and Democrats at home. Most Republicans aren’t being openly hostile (but drop by anchorrising.com sometime), and Chafee has said that he’s received reassurances by the party that he won’t be challenged in the ’06 primary. However, a plausible challenger is straining at the leash in one Stephen Laffey. Laffey, the mayor of Cranston and a graduate of the Rudy Guiliani Academy of Self-Aggrandizing Mayoring and Gratuitous Bullying, is the rising star in Republican politics in Rhode Island. He’s down with the D.C. Republican economic agenda, he’s wildly ambitious, and he loves to antagonize the old guard of the RI Republican establishment. Laffey can't possibly win a general election at this point, but he's become a big fish in a small pond very quickly, and the state Republican party may not be able to keep him out if Chafee insists on voting his conscience.

Laffey also happens to be the Providence Journal’s “It” boy at the moment, and the ProJo likes Republican Gov. Don Carcieri a Whole Lot. Although the editors will occasionally wax critical about administration policy, they usually can be counted on to back the President’s plays at crunch time. My guess is that this will continue to be true with SS reform, particularly if Laffey, Carcieri and the other so-called Real Republicans around the state are on board.

On the Democratic side, many Rhode Islanders were frustrated and disappointed that Chafee didn’t jump ship after the election. However, they have Matt Brown, the well-regarded Secretary of State, and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who has the right name and more money than he can count, waiting in the wings. If Chafee is a Good Republican the next two years and makes it through the primary, the Democratic candidate will be able to campaign against ChafeeBush and make the argument that Rhode Islanders cannot afford to send a conservative accomplice to Washington. At the same time, Chafee’s standing as an outsider will undermine any argument he might make about the advantages of having a Senator in the majority party. Everyone knows his influence is limited, and he can be counted on to wrangle just enough lucre for RI to keep him from crossing the aisle—and that will diminish if the Republicans build on their majority by winning other seats in '06.

Of course, much of this is moot if Chafee doesn’t care about being re-elected, and he may not. He seems authentically dedicated to public service, and he's not without guile and shrewdness, but little about him fits the mold of a career power player. This is, after all, a guy whose favorite topic of conversation may be shoeing horses. So who knows what he’ll do? I know I sure don’t. I’ve been in RI for a little over three years now, and the political landscape here strikes me as being two parts Tom Wolfe and one part John Kennedy O’Toole. Chafee is in many respects the oddest and least predictable of our cast of characters.

Generally speaking, he may choose to maintain party discipline by working behind the scenes and just keep a low profile on issues that his conscience prevents him from actively supporting, particularly if he wants to be re-elected. On the other hand, he may feel a certain freedom to act according to his conscience without reservation now that he’s already alienated everyone at home. With respect to Social Security specifically, he's most likely to come out as part of a pre-arranged coalition of moderate Repubs, although I wouldn’t expect him to take the point position on this (In any event, I agree with Josh Marshall that he ultimately won’t vote for any reform plan that doesn’t pass his smell test). We’ll see.

But Josh is dead on about one point: Chafee and the other moderate Republicans are going to be far less likely to come out against Social Security reform unless the Democrats can exercise some party discipline of their own. They need to get DLC drones like Lieberman and Bayh to act like the loyal opposition for a change, and they need to lock in their forty-five votes in order to expect any help from across the aisle.

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