My friend and radio-and-blog colleague Michael Medved rebukes me for wishing the defeat of Lincoln Chafee in the November general election, which would send Democratic Party nominee Sheldon Whitehouse to the Senate.
Michael’s arguments are the best that can be mustered on Senator Chafee’s behalf, but they fall very short of persuading me to support Senator Chafee. Michael does misapprehend my argument when he writes that “party purity is my goal,” and that I have joined with the “death wish Republicans.” Hardly. Most of my most recent book Painting the Map Red is an extended argument against party purity and a strong defense of the need for majoritarian parties to indeed be very big tents. But in a chapter titled “Not the Party of Lincoln (Chafee)” I explained at length why Rhode Island’s “Republican” is not really a Republican at all, and why his defeat is the exception to my rule that, in this time of war, every Republican Congressional candidate is a better candidate than every Democratic candidate. That doesn’t mean voting for doomed GOPers when, for example, Joe Lieberman can beat back the Lamontites with Republican support. But it does mean that every vote for any Congressional Democrat is a vote against victory and a vote for vulnerability.
Unfortunately, a vote for Lincoln Chafee is also a vote against victory and a vote for vulnerability.
I strongly supported the re-election of Arlen Specter two years ago, and there is no other Republican in the Senate who is not to be preferred over their Democratic opponent.
But Lincoln Chafee is simply not a Republican at any moment when he needs to be.
He voted against authorizing the invasion of Iraq. He voted against the confirmation of Justice Alito. He even refused to vote for the re-election of President Bush.
Senator Specter and all the other Republican “moderates” or “mavericks” got at least two of these three right. Even very big tents need an inside and an outside, or they aren’t tents at all, just meaningless labels. By any reasonable standard, Chafee left the tent a long time ago.
But what about the majority in the Senate?
First, it isn’t in danger.
Second, if there was a 51-49 or even a 50-50 split, the Senate would in effect be governed by Lincoln Chafee, and his ever contingent support for the GOP’s goals and perhaps even their majority status. Jim Jeffords proved that closely divided senates are governed by the most erratic person in the majority. Chafee’s demands –which would not be refused by his chairmanship-hungry colleagues– would lead to the most ruinous of situations, the appearance of majority without the ability to produce any results. His views on immigration, judges etc would be greatly magnified if he holds the key to the majority’s continued status, with absolutely awful consequences to the 2008 campaign.
Finally, Senator Chafee is accumulating seniority. If he wins re-election, this relatively young man will eventually rise to the chairmanship of Foreign Affairs and/or Environment & Public Works. (From a crucial subcommittee’s chairmanship on the latter committee, Senator Chafee has blocked any reform of the Endangered Species Act for the better part of five years, callously refusing even modest changes that will provide some relief to landowners burdened with the enormous costs of this wildly abused law. Senator Chafee’s indifference to basic constitutional rights and his refusal to actually use his chairmanship to legislate as opposed to obstruct are two more counts in the long bill of particulars lodged against him. As is his current obstruction of the confirmation of Ambassador Bolton.)
If Senator Chafee comes to the chairmanship of Foreign Affairs, I see nothing but disasters for the adminstration of the national security as a consequence. The Senate’s Committees do indeed matter, and in more than rhetorical ways. Senator Chafee with a microphone and the power to compel witnesses to appear and reports to be written would be as ruinous to the coherent defense of American foreign policy as Joe Biden’s frequent appearances behind podiums have been to the Democrats’ efforts to retool their image as serious on security.
The bottom line is that the parties have divided over seriousness and action v. silliness and obstruction in the two areas most important to the future of the country: national security and judicial nominees. Senator Chafee is not serious on either issue, and his lapses into silliness are not occasional, they are routine. A political party has to have a core of beliefs, from which great departures can be accomodated and even celebrated, but to which at least some modest allegiance is required. From Senator Chafee all the GOP has ever gotten is an organizing vote. The damage he does is not worth that bargain.