Next Tuesday, Lincoln Chafee will be inaugurated as Rhode Island’s 58th governor. What should he do when he takes office? To get some ideas, I asked five of the state’s smartest citizens what advice they would offer the new governor. Previously we heard from Tom Sgouros and Mary-Kim Arnold.
Everybody’s heard the clichéd relationship advice to set free the ones we love, because if they do not return, they were never ours in the first place. There should be a political corollary: Listen to those with whom you disagree.
As he ambles into office, Gov.-elect Lincoln Chafee should be deliberately aware that what he sees as resolute independence many of his new constituents see as refractory dogmatism.
As a U.S. Senator, his opposition to the Iraq war didn’t strike us as principled, but as knee-jerk leftism, an impression bolstered when he bragged that he’d written in President George W. Bush’s father’s name on his ballot in 2004. Even The Providence Journal’s former political columnist, M. Charles Bakst, described the senator as “the picture of indecision,” whose “dithering has been a distraction.”
Similarly, that Chafee reciprocated the aid that Sen. John McCain and the national GOP had offered during his Senate primary battle against Stephen Laffey in 2006 by publicly supporting Barack Obama in 2008 didn’t persuade us that the politician is independent-minded, but that McCain and the GOP had deserved their late-decade losses.
In short, those of us who’ve watched Linc transition out of his father’s party (and, truth be told, helped to usher him on his way) don’t interpret the consistent behavior of Mr. Trust Chafee as considered so much as petulant and defiant – and radical in just about every way.
In the weeks since the election, Chafee has seemed determined to cement our impression. When Chris Plante, executive director of National Organization for Marriage Rhode Island, requested a meeting, Chafee spokesman Michael Trainor explained that the governor-elect’s “long-established position” supporting same-sex marriage suggested that discussion would “not be productive.” Similarly, Terry Gorman, leader of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, heard from a Chafee staffer that “the governor-elect had already conducted all the meetings he would with constituents on matters such as these.” Again Trainor’s plea was “not productive.”
Mr. Chafee should consider how eminently reasonable it is of his opposition to wonder whether his supposed meetings and deliberations are entirely fictitious – at least to the extent that they are implied to include those not of like mind. And this doesn’t even begin to delve into justified suspicion that the new governor will have a dedicated (and peremptory) ringtone on his cell phone for organized labor.
For a column that details some of the differences between the incoming governor and current Gov. Don Carcieri, Trainor told Bakst’s replacement, Ed Fitzpatrick, that “the point that [Carcieri] is missing is Linc’s ability to bring people and factions together.” Without giving any indication that he sees the contradiction, Fitzpatrick went on to reference Chafee’s threat that board members of the state Economic Development Corporation might be personally liable for money lent to 38 Studios and his suggestion that the company’s founder, Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, had faked his famous bloody-sock injury. Threats and insults don’t tend to be unitive strategies.
Cynical political observers might suggest that Chafee should take a lesson from Politics 101 and host short, pointless meetings with his issue-by-issue opposition in order to deflate their claims of exclusion. The governor-elect’s problem goes deeper than that, though.
His doubters don’t want evidence that he has the patience to listen to the hum of their voices; they want evidence that he has, indeed, considered their points. He will be a proven independent only when they emerge from their meetings feeling as if he could accurately paraphrase their positions, and they will “come together” only when they trust that he is intellectually capable of independence, even though surrounded by left-wingers, labor leaders, and political insiders.
So, at every opportunity, Mr. Chafee should sit down across from people with whom he disagrees and ask his own political advisers to leave the room. He should then set free his cherished ideas and trust that the discussion will lead him back to them; otherwise, he may find that they were never plausible in the first place.
This assumes, of course, that Lincoln Chafee is able to frame political subject matter in this reasonable, rational fashion. If he is not, well then, that’s something the rest of us should know as soon as possible. •
(Photo credit: Jonathan Beller)