On the evening that the Democratic Party will stage its first live television debate of the 2016 presidential cycle, the spotlight will be firmly placed on the presumptive nominee and national front-runner Hillary Clinton. However, among the four candidates challenging Mrs Clinton, the most interesting individual will probably get zero airtime, to go along with his virtually non-existent name recognition and poll ratings thus far.
I am obviously talking about Lincoln Chafee.
Ok, I use “obviously” flippantly. The most politically in-tune Americans will know little, if anything, of the former US Senator and Rhode Island Governor, so observers from further afield are easily forgiven. However, if one is a complete political junkie like myself you’ll probably know Gov. Chafee for one of two reasons. Firstly, that he was the only Republican (GOP) Senator to vote against the Iraq war and, secondly, his wandering political affiliation.
Those reading carefully will already understand what I mean by my second point. Chafee was appointed to Congress as a Republican after the death of his father, the sitting Senator. He would remain in this post and this party until 2007, whereupon he became an independent. The final piece in Chafee’s collection of political affiliations was secured when, midway through his term as Governor of Rhode Island, he registered with the Democrats, the party whose presidential nomination Chafee now hopes to secure.
So, why is this significant and why, as external spectators, should we really care? After all, Chafee has nearly as much a chance of gaining the nomination as Tim Farron has of becoming Prime Minister here across the pond! The answer is simple; Chafee’s changing affiliation, which is not the result of inconsistencies on the former Governors part, is indicative of the ideological shift in contemporary US politics.
To understand this, one must look at Chafee’s positions throughout his career. As an elected Republican in the US Senate, Chafee received a 90% voting record from the NARAL, the political arm of the pro-choice movement, indicating his belief in abortion rights. In the same 2003 survey of lawmakers, the Republican Senate leader, Sen. Bill Frist, was rated at 0%. Despite this, the GOP’s economic platform enabled the two to share a party platform with relative ease. As well as this, unlike many Republican lawmakers, the pro-environmental group the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) rated Chafee’s voting record at 79%, revealing a pro-environment stance during his years in the Senate. However, like the vast majority of those on the centre-right, Chafee was, and remains, a fierce advocate of free trade, with CATO assessing his votes in the Senate as 92% pro-business.
To this day, Chafee’s aforementioned policy positions have remained consistent and thus he finds himself on the Democratic side of arguments concerning abortion, gay rights and the environment but his trade and economic positions are more akin to the Republican Party, as a whole, but also the faction of free-trade Dems. For instance, Chafee is the only out-and-proud supporter of the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement of all the Democratic presidential candidates so far. However, he is not the only Democrat to support such a deal, with implementation of the free trade agreement being seen as a key goal of President Obama’s administration. Therefore, Chafee’s modified political affiliation is clearly due to the wider ideological shift to be found within the GOP: a greater focus on social conservatism than fiscal conservatism. Chafee, himself, is acutely aware of this, declaring in a recent interview with The Washington Examiner “I haven’t changed but my old party changed, they now have more of an emphasis on social issues and less on fiscal responsibility”.
The differences between Chafee and the modern Republican Party are clearly numerous and extensive. However, these differences are not limited to Chafee alone. Fellow Rockefeller Republicans (socially liberal, but pro-business Republicans) have been falling out with the Grand Old Party for years. The late veteran Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords left the Republicans in 2001 to become an independent Senator who caucused with the Democrats. The same is true of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who won two elections as a Republican before becoming an independent. Both, whilst being defenders of abortion rights and green policies, were supportive of free trade and general fiscal conservatism.
Yes, it is true that the once numerous Rockefeller Republicans have declined in number quite dramatically, but centre-right GOP’ers still remain (but with ever-increasing rarity). These include Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Mark Kirk of Illinois. Both were vehement in their opposition to the recent Senate vote to defund abortion provider Planned Parenthood, with Kirk being the only Republican to vote against the bill and Collins only voting for the measure in order to offer an amendment. The pair are also the lowest rated Republican Senators by the NRA; Collins received a C- grade whereas Kirk is rated F, with both supporting some level of gun control. They also share pro-environment credentials (with lifetime LCV ratings of 65% and 59% respectively) and outspoken support for gay rights, with respective Human Rights Campaign ratings of 85% and 78%. However, just as those who left the GOP have done, the few Rockefeller Republicans that remain hold true to their belief in budgetary responsibility and fiscal conservatism.
Although I am not aiming, or even trying, to convert the liberal conservatives in our own party to cross the aisle to the Democratic side, a clear divergence of views and policy positions has occurred between the GOP and us. Putting all ethical questions to one side, the UK Conservative Party are almost unanimously supportive of a women’s right to make her own reproductive choices, including the use of abortion. I am also proud of the fact that it was a Conservative led government that initiated and passed legislation allowing gay marriage throughout the country. And I am equally satisfied that under the responsible stewardship of George Osborne, the UK economy is turning around, the lowest brackets of income are being removed from the tax threshold and a new, higher living wage will be with us in 2020. These are not un-conservative positions but have forced many, including Chafee, who share many policy platforms of the UK Conservatives, to part ways with their once much beloved Republican Party. I still consider myself a moderate Republican and our parties are still to be found in the same international political family, the International Democratic Union, but one cannot deny the quickly diverging policy focuses of the Conservative and Republican parties.
Returning to Gov. Chafee, although his presidential candidacy is almost certain to fail, he remains the most interesting candidate of the entire presidential field (and that includes the bickering cabal of Republicans and the toupee-wearing property mogul this contains). Not because of the few headlines he drew for wanting the States to “go metric!” Not because, after finishing a degree in Classics, he qualified and worked as a farrier on the horse circuits of America and Canada before his entry into political life. But due to the changing political and ideological landscape in America that Chafee’s party political career brings attention to and of which he, himself, is a product. Although we are unlikely to welcome a future President Chafee to London, in a number of ways, he may be the closest thing we get to a UK Conservative entering the White House in 2016.