Lincoln Chafee’s 2016 run might matter more than you think

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·National Political Columnist
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Lincoln Chafee, then governor of Rhode Island, in 2013. (Photo: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty)

Lincoln Chafee says that when he first got the idea to run for president, he went to see Michael Bloomberg, who, like Chafee, has belonged to both parties and to neither. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, said he had concluded that you needed to run from inside a party in order to mount a credible White House campaign. (I don’t think he’s right, especially if you’re like the 10th-richest man in America, but that’s a conversation for another time.)

So Chafee, the former senator and governor from Rhode Island, decided he would not only run as a Democrat, which he had only recently become, but that he would take on one of the party’s most towering figures and its presumed nominee. The chance of success here is roughly the same as the chance that Mitt Romney will adopt me as the sixth son he never had.

But that doesn’t mean Hillary Clinton should laugh off Linc Chafee, as others have been too quick to do in the past. The chance that he could have a real, if indirect, impact on the nominating process isn’t nearly so small.

Yes, yes, I know, because I’ve heard it a thousand times now: There is no actual nominating process this time, you say. Hillary is hard-wired and inescapable, like your cable company. The establishment has made its decision, and all the rest is just people like me inventing some competition that doesn’t really exist, because otherwise no one will reimburse our travel expenses.

Well, OK. Except that I remember the last time Hillary was hard-wired and inescapable, in 2008. The main difference now, aside from her being a little older and a little more out of practice, is that after a couple of losing midterm cycles, the party has less to offer by way of plausible alternatives.

So far, the only pedigreed opponent who appears to be stepping up is Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor. O’Malley is a formidable and still-forming candidate whose combination of youth, experience and erudition would at least entitle him to a serious hearing in any normal campaign year.

The problem — or one of them, anyway — for O’Malley is that it’s hard to introduce yourself to people while simultaneously going after your better-known and better-funded opponent. O’Malley has been around presidential politics long enough to know that, if you’re really out to win, you don’t want to become the Jerry Brown or Howard Dean of the cycle — the guy who takes it to the establishment and damages the front-runner, only to find himself branded as too negative and too angry.

No, the guy you want to be in this scenario is John Edwards in 2004 or Barack Obama in 2008. You want to be the fresh, relentlessly positive alternative to whom primary voters can turn when the buyer’s remorse sets in. You don’t want to have to do all the attacking and undermining; you just want to put yourself in position to reap the benefits.

So if you’re O’Malley, what you really need is someone halfway believable whose sole mission when he gets up every morning is to make Clinton sound like Jeb Bush in a wig. That could be Bernie Sanders, but, you know, Sanders is an actual socialist, so he probably just makes Clinton seem electable by comparison.

It could be Jim Webb, but I’m not convinced Webb runs at the end of the day, and even if he does, Clinton will gently remind Iowa Democrats that Webb was a Reagan appointee, has been known to carry a gun and has a problem with affirmative action.

Then you have Chafee, who is, under that seemingly meek exterior, one of the most steely and stubborn politicians I have known. Chafee surprised just about everyone (including some of his former aides) when he announced a few weeks ago he was exploring a run, but when I talked to him this week, he sounded like a man who had already made his decision.

“I do expect to file the official paperwork at the appropriate time,” he said. What this means, in political-legal speak, is that he will declare officially once he begins acting like a full-on candidate, which is when the law requires it.

Chafee’s main motive seems to be that he just can’t stomach the idea of Clinton, his former colleague in the Senate, as an interventionist president in an unstable world. He sees very little difference, substantively, between her and her predecessor as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.

“I do think there’s a thirst out there for fresh ideas of where we’re going, especially on foreign policy,” he told me. “I don’t think the neocon, unilateral, muscular foreign policy is really the way to go. And she’s just too close to that view.”

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Hillary Clinton at a campaign stop in Concord, N.H. (Photo: Jim Cole/AP)

Clinton’s network of rapid responders, who pride themselves on a zero-tolerance policy for criticism of any kind, will try to dismiss Chafee as a lifelong Republican who left the party only after he lost his Senate re-election bid, and who became a Democrat only when it was convenient. But that’s not such an easy story to sell.

Unlike Webb, who ran as an antiwar candidate at a time when Democrats had already turned on Iraq, Chafee was one of only seven Republicans who voted against authorizing the Iraq invasion that Clinton supported. “It just wasn’t evident that Saddam was a threat,” he says, bothered still. “It was all talk. And now we live with the ramifications.”

In fact, despite enormous pressure, Chafee opposed virtually the entire Bush agenda in the Senate, including tax cuts for the wealthy. He is an ardent environmentalist (his father, Sen. John Chafee, was a hero of the movement), and he endorsed Obama twice.

Of course, foreign policy isn’t likely to drive this primary season for Democrats, who long ago litigated the Iraq vote. But that’s just the starting point for Chafee’s Clinton critique. Anyone who has watched a few presidential campaigns knows that issues shape candidacies, and not the other way around; remember that Dean started out his antiwar campaign in 2003 talking about balanced budgets.

Chafee is a middling retail politician, at best, and probably won’t light up many rallies the way Dean did. Years ago, in a painfully honest moment, he told me that when he set out to run his local campaign for office in Rhode Island, he went out to canvass neighborhoods but ended up sitting in his car instead, working up the courage to knock on doors.

But there is something fearless and relentless about Chafee, who spent his postgraduate years shoeing horses in the Canadian backcountry. It’s not hard to imagine him livening up the debates in a few months, pounding away at Clinton’s ideological pliability in his firm and deliberate way. It’s not hard to imagine a conflict-starved media amplifying that quiet voice into every corner of Iowa and New Hampshire.

And depending on how Clinton handles it, that might be just enough to pry open the door for an alternative like O’Malley, who will have spent the past year chatting up every Iowan he could find, showing off his skills on the electric guitar and touting his own liberal record in Maryland.

When Chafee announced his impending campaign this month with a broadside at Clinton, some political analysts suggested that O’Malley had failed to show the same courage. But hang on: Why would you set about tearing down Hillary, at this stage in the not-yet-campaign, if somebody else is about to do it for you?

Chafee may not win a single state next year, but unlike O’Malley, he is a man with nothing to lose from running the campaign he wants to run, and very little to gain from holding back. For a presumed nominee, that’s often the most dangerous kind of candidate there is.

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