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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Lincoln Chafee to join the neoliberal party. Rhode Island Dems should reject him.

by David Atkins

Lincoln Chafee has finally decided to switch parties and become a Democrat. The short and simple analysis is that Chafee faced an uncomfortable three-way battle in which many Democrats declined to endorse their own fellow Democrat Frank Caprio in order to assure that a Republican didn't sneak into the Rhode Island governorship. Chafee's switch to the Democratic Party means that he can potentially avoid that situation if he runs for re-election.

A lazy progressive take on Chafee's switch is that Republicans have become so extreme that they've driven the likes of Chafee out of their party, that more sensible Republicans should switch away also, that the GOP is facing death throes as the Bachmanns are laughed out of Congress while the Chafees become Democrats. Yada yada. But I'm not going to do that, because it would be whistling past the graveyard.

The reality is that while Chafee is reliably liberal on social issues, he largely remains an economic conservative. That makes him wholly inadequate as a Democrat.

Now, if Rhode Island were a tough red state in which Chafee was a reliable winner against a bevy of hyperconservatives, that would be different. Ben Nelson, for instance, will always get a pass in Nebraska because there aren't good alternatives. But Rhode Island is not that. Good progressive Democrats with real progressive economic values can and should win in Rhode Island. Lincoln Chafee is not the best of a bad bargain. He's the worst of a good bargain.

Not surprisingly, then, the Neoliberal-in-Chief has wholeheartedly supported him even as it rankles the state Democratic establishment in Rhode Island:

Obama has returned the favor: he declined to endorse a Democrat for governor in 2010, when Chafee was running as an independent in a three-way race. And when Chafee ran TV ads featuring archival footage of the president praising him, Obama and his aides did not object.

In fact, despite being officially neutral in 2010, Obama was perceived as so Chafee-friendly that the Democratic nominee that year, Frank Caprio, told Rhode Island radio station WPRO that the president could “take his endorsement and really shove it.”

Chafee ultimately won with 36 percent of the vote, while Caprio fell into third place.

While Chafee’s party switch is likely to avert the possibility of another messy three-way race, it is unclear whether other national Democrats will embrace Chafee as ardently as Obama has.

Both Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and state Treasurer Gina Raimondo are likely candidates in a Democratic primary. The Democratic Governors Association is not expected to take sides in a competitive nomination fight; in a statement, DGA Chair Peter Shumlin said he’s “excited” about Chafee’s switch but that the DGA will support “whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee” in 2014.

Taveras reacted to the news of Chafee becoming a Democrat with a wry rejoinder: “I have been a Democrat and a Red Sox fan my whole life, and I don’t intend on changing either.”
As Democrats, we can do better than Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island, particularly now that he's saddled with bad approval ratings. We must do better.

And it must be the state party leadership in Rhode Island that stands up to the President and makes it clear that they expect and demand a real Democrat run for and win the governorship of the Ocean State.