Chafee’s night in the national Democratic spotlight

Aug 31, 2012

In 30 years in Rhode Island politics, Lincoln Chafee has been elected to every office from Warwick city council, to U.S. Senate and governor. He never has been a Democrat. Yet now independent  Governor Chafee will have the biggest speaking role any Rhode Island political figure has had at any Democratic National Convention since 1964, when Sen. John Pastore was the keynote convention speaker.

Pastore’s speech was a classic that set the table for Lyndon Johnson’s landslide election victory that fall. In 1964, 11-year old  Linc Chafee accompanied his father, then Rhode Island Gov. John Chafee, to the famous Republican convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco that nominated conservative Barry Goldwater, the first of the sunbelt politicians who began the transformation of the GOP into the right-wing  party it is today.

“Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,’’ boomed Goldwater, who was lampooned by Democrats as a warmonger and who scared moderate Republicans into the arms of LBJ. Today Goldwater would be seen as too liberal for the new Republican Party; the Arizonian supported abortion rights and wasn’t much for mixing state and religion; he was no fan of  Christian evangelicals.

No one will ever confuse Chafee with the eloquent Pastore, he of the doomsday-deep voice and partisan rhetoric that skewered Goldwater  for opposing such historic advances in American society as the Civil Rights Bill of 1964.  Pastore, the first Italian-American elected to the U.S. Senate, delivered a paean to the American immigrant experience and brought down the house with his `my cup runneth over’ Biblical line.

Chafee is no orator but he will have a great story to tell the delegates assembled in Charlotte and the millions watching on national television.

The governor will speak on Tuesday evening just before First Lady Michelle Obama. Chafee, a Republican-turned-independent, will likely remind Americans and Rhode Islanders that he is a scion of a proud tradition – moderate Republicanism – that no longer has any place in the Republican Party of the sunbelt, the Old Confederacy and the Tea Party.

Republicans were once an umbrella coalition that embraced both hard-right conservatives and northeastern and Midwestern liberals. Such senators as Chafee, Javits, Dirksen, Brooke, Saltonstall, Aiken and Hatfield supported women’s rights, civil rights and environmental protection. Their governors were Scranton, Rockefeller, Volpe, Weld,  Snelling and Romney; George Romney, that is.

They were  pay-as-you-go fiscal conservatives but social liberals.

In New England, their God was Protestant, meaning they were unburdened by the parochial views of the Roman Catholic Church on such issues as abortion and women’s rights. They were internationalists in foreign policy, politicians who believed in the institutions established after World War II to keep a fragile peace; NATO, the United Nations, the Marshall Plan.

Without moderate Republicans, there is no way America would have tackled the great issue of civil rights in the 1960s; the Democratic Party of that era was too yoked to the apartheid South. In Rhode Island, it was Gov. John Chafee who ushered in the first open-housing law, barring discrimination on the basis of race, in our state’s history.

On Tuesday, Chafee is sure to tell the delegates that there is no room in the GOP of 2012 for independent thinkers and political figures who get things done by compromise. He can remind delegates that he knows what it is like to be run out of the party of his father because of apostasies that seem in retrospect to have been smart moves: then-U.S. Sen. Chafee’s vote against the Bush tax cuts and the lone Republican Senate vote against prosecuting the Iraq War.

Chafee can tell a present-at-the creation tale of what happened after Bush and Cheney won in 2000 and pushed supply side economics and neoconservative foreign policies.

A deficit hawk, Chafee can talk about how tough it has been in Rhode Island to take over from a conservative Republican governor, Donald Carcieri, who left behind such reckless deals as 38 Studios and catastrophic cuts in state aid to communities that have drowned municipal governments with red ink. And, of course, Chafee can speak about working with then Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in the Senate.

Chafee will be in Charlotte to try to convince independents who are still on the fence that the only plausible choice  come November is another term for President Barack Obama. He will also probably point out that moderate Republicans have no choice but to vote for Obama, particularly in light of Mitt Romney’s bellicose foreign policy views and embrace of  right-wing tax and economic policy.

In this odd political cycle, it will be a lifelong Republican from Rhode Island who will make the case for reelection of  a Democratic president.