At debate, Chafee struggles with questions about Senate votes

Former governor tells moderator Anderson Cooper: 'I think you're being a little rough'

Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Lincoln Chafee’s most memorable moment in the first Democratic presidential debate was likely when he admitted he didn’t know what he was doing during his first U.S. Senate roll call.

Pressed by moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN about his 1999 vote to repeal the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act that regulated large financial institutions – a change often cited on the left as a key contributor to the financial crisis – Chafee gave the verbal equivalent of a shrug, saying the vote came just two days after Gov. Lincoln Almond appointed him to finish the unexpired Senate term of his father, John Chafee, who had died the month before.

“Glass-Steagall was my very first vote – I had just arrived; my dad had died in office, I was appointed to the office – it was my first vote,” Chafee said.

“Are you saying you didn’t know what you voted for?” Cooper asked.

“I’d just arrived in the Senate,” Chafee replied. “I think we get some takeovers, and that was one of my very first votes, and it was 90 to 5.”

“With all due respect, senator,” Cooper said, “what does that say about you – that you were casting a vote for something you weren’t really sure about?”

“I think you’re being a little rough,” Chafee replied. “I had just arrived at the United States Senate. I’d been mayor of my city – my dad had died, I’d been appointed by the governor, it was my first vote, and it was 90 to 5 because it was a conference report.”

Watch video of Chafee’s answer. Story continues below.

Cooper moved on, but the damage was done – especially for an obscure candidate like Chafee, who was getting his first chance Tuesday night in Las Vegas to introduce himself to Democrats nationwide, and not least because the core rationale for his candidacy has been that he did his homework as a senator on the Iraq war.

The perception that Chafee didn’t know what he was doing in the Senate was only reinforced with the next question he got, about how he squared his vote for the 2001 Patriot Act with his outspoken support for civil liberties. Once again Chafee cited the lopsided vote total in favor of the bill, this time 99 to 1. The pair of exchanges triggered coast-to-coast mockery of Rhode Island’s former governor.

“Holy cow,” wrote Chris Cillizza, an influential Washington Post writer. “I had low expectations for the former Rhode Island governor going into the debate, but he managed to under-perform even those. … A genuinely awful performance.”

Chafee “simply had one too many awkward moments, with the vote tally excuses being the toughest to watch,” Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” wrote on Twitter. Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin gave Chafee’s performance a grade of D+.

Sheryl Crow, left, sings the National Anthem as Democratic presidential candidates from left, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee take the stage before the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
In Quotes: Democratic Debate »

“You have to feel sorry for Chafee,” wrote the New York Post’s John Podhoretz. “He has no idea how to deflect a question and gave the worst debate answer since Perry’s” – a reference to a 2012 debate where former Texas Gov. Rick Perry couldn’t remember the third of three federal departments he wanted to eliminate.

It’s long been clear that a key motivation for Chafee to run for president is that it gives him a chance to take swings at Hillary Clinton on prime-time TV over her support for the Iraq invasion, a defining issue for him. Yet by the end of Tuesday’s debate national pundits were praising her performance and panning Chafee’s – if they bothered to mention him at all.

“Lincoln Chafee looked like he wandered into the building after his yacht had been lost at sea for weeks,” Jonathan Chait of The New Republic wrote in a postmortem. “Lincoln Chafee is historically bad at this,” agreed The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. Chafee “just seems lame,” added Vox’s Matt Yglesias.

Even Republican frontrunner Donald Trump chimed in, tweeting: “Can anyone imagine Chafee as president? No way.”

For a politician who shocked just about everybody when he announced a run for president last spring, Chafee did little Tuesday night to show Democrats – or future debate organizers – why he belongs on the big stage alongside Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Cooper set the tone early with his first question to Chafee, asking why he’d switched his affiliation from Republican to independent to Democratic over the last decade. Comparing him with Sanders, Cooper quipped that Chafee had been “everything but a socialist” during his time in politics.

“Anderson,” Chafee replied, “you’re looking at a block of granite when it comes to the issues” – a turn of phrase that also lit up social media.

From there on Chafee spent much of the roughly two-hour event on the sidelines – literally because of his placement at the edge of the stage, and figuratively since he wound up speaking for less than 10 minutes, the lowest total for any of the candidates. And unlike his fellow long-shot candidate, former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, Chafee rarely made much effort to push his way into the conversation or get more time.

To the extent Chafee wanted to use his platform to criticize Clinton, he didn’t even always hit the mark there. After Sanders won cheers – and a handshake from Clinton – by saying Americans were sick of hearing about the email controversy, Cooper turned to Chafee to see if he’d reiterate his criticism of her over it.

“Absolutely,” Chafee said, suggesting the next president will need to “repair American credibility” after the faulty intelligence over the Iraq war, and arguing the email issue could hinder Clinton’s ability to do that.

Cooper then asked, “Secretary Clinton, do you want to respond?”

Clinton smiled broadly and simply replied, “No” – drawing huge applause from the crowd. Chafee didn’t speak again for 15 minutes.

If nothing else, the debate did give Chafee multiple opportunities to highlight the pride he still takes in his 2002 vote on Iraq – and its contrast with Clinton’s – as well as his continued concern about American foreign policy in the Middle East.

“If you’re looking ahead and you’re looking at someone that made that poor decision in 2002 to go into Iraq when there was no real evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – I know, because I did my homework – and so that’s an indication of how someone will perform in the future, and that’s what’s important,” he said at one point.

The question is, how much longer will Chafee stay in the race?

By almost any conventional measure, Chafee’s campaign appears to be going nowhere. His support currently stands at 0.3% in the RealClearPolitics polling average. He has barely any money, limited staff and no endorsements. Now he has also failed to make a strong impression in a debate.

On the other hand, Chafee’s chances already looked extremely slim back when he announced, and that didn’t stop him from jumping into the race. He appears immune to embarrassment, and doesn’t have a clear alternative occupation to go to once he’s done with the campaign.

To the extent Chafee is sticking with it so he can appear in the debates, his next move may be partly in the hands of the TV networks who decide which candidates qualify. The next debate will air Nov. 14 on CBS News, which hasn’t said yet whether Chafee will make the cut.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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