Why Chafee for President actually makes sense

Rhode Islanders’ general reaction to Lincoln Chafee’s announcement this morning that he may seek the Democratic presidential nomination seems to be a mix of shock, bewilderment, amusement and outright hostility. Memories of Chafee’s troubled single term in the governor’s office are still fresh – he’s only been gone three months – and the idea that his experience there could now serve as a springboard to the White House strikes most people as preposterous at best.

Yet there are plenty of perfectly sensible reasons why Chafee would see a presidential run as an enticing option right now – and he’s not necessarily wrong about them. Here they are.

 He has a healthy ego. Lincoln Chafee does not subscribe to the conventional wisdom about him in Rhode Island: that he’s politically tone deaf, inept (or worse) as a communicator, and well to the left of public sentiment. Chafee sees himself as one of the few principled politicians in American life today, and thinks the failure of his one-term governorship was a product of the small-minded politics of his home state, not his own errors. He clearly likes being in the spotlight and having an audience listen to him. And don’t forget that he flirted with challenging President Bush in the 2004 New Hampshire primary.

 Not all presidential bids are about winning. Lincoln Chafee is not going to be the 2016 Democratic nominee for president, even if for some reason Hillary Clinton isn’t, either. But on paper his résumé is a perfectly respectable one for a presidential aspirant: a former U.S. senator who spoke out on world affairs, a former governor of a blue state, a former Republican who can demonstrate the zeal of the convert for his new party. (The fact that he couldn’t win a second full term as senator or governor, of course, is an issue.) Chafee the candidate will probably get invited to participate in debates against Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and whoever else makes the race – garnering him plenty of publicity and free TV time to expound on his worldview. Remember Mike Gravel stealing the show in 2007? Why couldn’t Chafee play that role this time? It will raise his profile once the race is over, too.

 He shouldn’t have trouble getting noticed. The Democratic presidential primary is looking pretty dull right now – just a long march to inevitable victory by Hillary Clinton. Reporters are going to be looking for other stories to cover over the next year, and a quixotic campaign by the quotable and unpredictable Chafee could be excellent copy. Plus, the press thrives on conflict, and Chafee doesn’t mind picking a fight – he could make the TV debates significantly more interesting, particularly if he’s more willing than, say, O’Malley to throw a haymaker at Hillary. (And oh look, he’s already doing just that.)

 He has genuinely different views from Hillary. Especially on foreign policy, a core presidential task. Chafee is a dove’s dove – profoundly skeptical of armed intervention and American military dominance in the world. He made his name as the lone Republican U.S. senator to vote against the Iraq war. Hillary Clinton, of course, was one of the Democrats who voted the other way – which led Chafee to label her one of the “Democratic Bush enablers” when he endorsed Barack Obama in 2008. It’s been widely noted that Hillary Clinton’s views are more hawkish than those of others in her party, and Chafee will be eager and well-positioned to highlight that.

 He doesn’t care much for the Clintons. See the last bullet, for starters, and recall this quote from Chafee’s memoir, about Hillary Clinton and others who voted for the Iraq conflict: “Helping a rogue president start an unnecessary war should be a career-ending lapse of judgment, in my view.” Ouch. Bill Clinton came to Rhode Island twice in 2010 to campaign for Frank Caprio against Chafee; Barack Obama, the sitting Democratic president, famously declined to endorse Caprio, the Democratic nominee for governor, due to his friendship with Chafee. (Worth noting, too, that it’s possible Chafee’s entry into the race might actually be good for Clinton, providing a real foil for her to campaign against before the general election – as well as someone to look moderate against – though good luck debating him, Madame Secretary.)

 He doesn’t care much for the Bushes, either. Don’t forget that Jeb Bush is running, too, and nothing has defined Lincoln Chafee’s public career more than his hostility toward the George W. Bush administration. His jabs at Hillary may include some swipes at Jeb and company, too.

 He may have some appeal outside Rhode Island. During his time as governor, Chafee’s aides would marvel at the warm response he’d receive when he traveled out of state, a marked contrast with his 30%ish approval ratings at home. Many Democrats still appreciate his votes as a GOP senator against the Iraq war and the Bush tax cuts, as well as his repeated argument that the Republican Party is no longer open to pro-environment, pro-choice, dovish moderates like himself. Most Iowa and New Hampshire primary voters have never heard of 38 Studios – and Chafee has no reason to tell them about it. (Although, Chafee being Chafee, he probably will anyway.) His authenticity and quirkiness could play well in the retail politics atmosphere of those early states, particularly with Clinton skeptics searching for an alternative.

 He might as well. Chafee is a healthy 62 years old. He doesn’t have a job right now, and he doesn’t need to worry about money thanks to his family’s fortune. He’s unlikely to make a political comeback in Rhode Island anytime soon. Why not run for president to fill the time? Especially if he thinks he can highlight views that won’t get a hearing otherwise?

Now, there are lots of good arguments against Chafee running for president. The fact that he will lose, for one thing. The amount of his own money he may have to spend to do so. The potential for embarrassment. The risk of alienating the next Democratic president if it’s Clinton. The possibility of closer scrutiny by national reporters about the decisions he made as governor.

From Chafee’s perspective, though, those probably don’t look like reasons to avoid taking the plunge. And if there’s one thing we all know about Lincoln Chafee at this point, it’s that he’s happiest when he’s going his own way. Even at this late date, he still hasn’t lost his ability to surprise – and perplex – Rhode Islanders.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

This post has been updated.

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