WASHINGTON — America’s smallest state — one Nevada county is nearly eight times larger — has the longest name: In a 2010 referendum, voters kept the official title, State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The state also has a dark-horse presidential candidate who is the only Democratic candidate so far who can shoe a horse. “Put a blacksmith in the White House” could be Lincoln Chafee’s slogan.
A prep-school classmate of Jeb Bush at Andover, Chafee is a scion of one of Rhode Island’s Five Families. His implausible hope is to defeat Hillary Clinton’s implausible campaign to be anointed champion of, simultaneously, downtrodden Americans and foreign uranium magnates. He promises a third Barack Obama term: “President Obama has led admirably. He has revived our economy.” Chafee said this shortly before the grim expectation that the economy’s first-quarter growth would be a miserable 1 percent proved to be five times too optimistic.
Chafee, 62, who served one full term as a Republican senator, became the first person in Rhode Island’s statehood elected governor as an independent. Then he became a Democrat. He, too, is not an obvious candidate to lead the vanguard of the proletariat: His pedigree runs from his father John (Rhode Island governor; secretary of the Navy; four-term senator) back to a great-great grandfather who was the state’s governor, and a great-great uncle who was a U.S. senator, all the way to an ancestor whose arrival in New England in 1637 almost coincided with the arrival of Jeb Bush’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.
Upon graduating from Brown, where he majored in classics, Chafee, like a Huck Finn shucking off an Ivy League patina, lit out for the territories. For Montana, to take up blacksmithing, which he practiced for seven years, often at harness-racing tracks, from Canada to Florida. He speaks about shoeing horses with more passion and specificity than he does about his primary interest today, foreign policy: “I want to highlight the importance of more friends and fewer enemies.”
His hopes for the Middle East boil down to “eventually a Gorbachev is going to come along.” His reason for running is “let’s end these wars.” Regarding domestic affairs, his liberalism is low-voltage. About Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to make matters worse for the entitlement state by increasing Social Security benefits, he says only: “It depends on who they are for and how you pay for it.” He dismisses Clinton (“It’s accurate to call her a hawk”) succinctly: “The world is much more chaotic than when she became secretary of state.” Other judgments are more problematic: He says that the late Hugo Chavez, with whom Chafee met twice, “wanted good relations with the United States.”
Chafee has had fine moments. In 2002, he was the only Republican senator to vote against authorizing the invasion of Iraq. In 2006, amid white-hot hysteria about a nonexistent epidemic of flag burning, he was one of just three Republican friends of the First Amendment to vote against sending to the states for ratification a constitutional amendment that would have empowered Congress to ban desecration of the American flag. The amendment, which might have been swiftly ratified by state legislatures eager to clutter the Constitution with a pious gesture, lost by just one vote.
Before becoming a senator and then governor, Chafee became mayor of Warwick, in spite of being reluctant to meet voters. “When I first went out to knock on doors, it took a while for me to get out of the car.” One of British playwright Alan Bennett’s comedies has this bit of dialogue:
Polly: He’s a socialist but he doesn’t like people.
Brian: Nor do I, much.
Polly: You’re a Conservative. You don’t have to.
Chafee probably likes people by now. He is, however, disqualified from bragging about his humble origins. Such bragging has been a staple of America’s political vaudeville since 1840, when William Henry Harrison, the son of a wealthy Virginia planter family, was elected the nation’s ninth president by pretending to be a hardscrabble member of the log-cabin-and-hard-cider set. Chafee cannot compete with Hillary Clinton’s boast about having been “dead broke” just 15 years and many, many millions ago.
If restive Democrats, shopping for an alternative to Clinton, want a white-haired New Englander with features as craggy as the region’s coastline, they can play at being sandbox socialists with Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, who has overcome reticence.
Chafee’s genteel excoriation of Clinton includes noting that in 1964 she was a “Goldwater girl.”
Which means she peaked early.
George F. Will is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.