Lincoln Chafee ’75 served as a US Senator (1999-2007) and the 74th Governor of Rhode Island
Brown Political Review: Starting with your personal background, you worked as a professional farrier for 7 years before entering Rhode Island state politics. What influenced you on your path from getting a Classics degree at Brown to equine hoof care and then onto politics?
Lincoln Chafee: I didn’t want to rush right into heavy duty responsibility after college. After four years of studying I wanted to enjoy working a regular 40 hour work week and getting a paycheck on Friday. … I was lucky that I got to work for a blacksmith who really taught me the trade. I went to a horseshoe school and worked hard to find someone to hire me. Once I found someone to teach me the trade, I went off on my own and had a terrific seven years working on a racetrack.
BPR: What led you to switch from the Republican Party to become an Independent, and then later to the Democratic Party?
LC: I think the Bush-Cheney agenda coming in really pushed me out of the Republican Party. I did stay for my term in the Senate as a Republican, but it was very hard. Coming in on Tuesday when we would have our lunch to talk about the agenda for that week, I would find an agenda I just did not approve of. At the same time, I had to deliver for Rhode Island, and Republicans were in power in the White House and controlled the Senate and the House. It was a definite conflict. I was also considering, would the pendulum ever swing back to Eisenhower and Rockefeller style Republicanism where we just care about balancing the books and letting people live their lives? After time, I didn’t think [this type of Republicanism] would come back.
The South has become more Republican, they care more about social issues. This change was happening through the 1990s, but it was really amplified when Bush and Cheney came in the 2000s. They had a unilateral approach to so many issues that I disagreed with, so I realized it was time to go find another party. It was an evolution that took me a while, first leaving the Republican party to become an Independent and then later becoming a Democrat. It was a thoughtful process.
BPR: What was it like running Rhode Island as an independent governor? Did you find that it helped you govern more effectively or less effectively?
LC: I learned that it was harder. I thought that by being an Independent I would be devoid of the partisan squabbles (as small as the Republican Party is in Rhode Island), but I just found it hard, with a tough economy inherited and having to make decisions without having a party behind me. For example, the legislature only took half of my first budget Had I been a Democrat, they would have taken more of my budget, and the economy could have recovered faster. I didn’t have anybody helping me defend it as an independent.
BPR: Why did you choose not to run for a second term as governor?
LC: A lot of it had to do with thinking about a potential presidential run. My wife and I were driving to Maine in the summer of 2013 and we had to make the decision of whether we continue the fundraising [for a gubernatorial race]. On that six hour drive to Maine, we were talking about what I ultimately want to do and I just kept talking about how I love international issues and really enjoyed being on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and my concern about what we were doing wrong in the world. In the conversation my wife said that it would be better for me to not be governor if I wanted to run for President. And that’s true; it was a good decision. It’s so hard to do both, especially with the challenges of being governor in Rhode Island and the challenges of running for President.
BPR: How do you view the current status quo in Rhode Island, and what can be done to improve it?
LC: Despite being an independent for much of my term as governor and some setbacks, I’m happy with how we ended up in Rhode Island. Our unemployment dropped and was one of the best in the country. There are only three states from when I took office to today that did better in dropping the rate of unemployment. I’m very proud of that. Also when I came in, a number of our cities and towns were eligible for state intervention. Their finances were thus that they could lead to bankruptcy, and one of them did go to bankruptcy, Central Falls. Even our capital city of Providence was eligible for state intervention, as were Pawtucket and Woonsocket. We put the resources back into these cities and got them back on firmer financial footing. We took care of our distressed communities and I’m very proud of that. As governor, I did not ignore them and tell them to figure it out themselves; I helped them.
BPR: Are there any votes you took that you disagree with now?
LC: The repeal of Glass-Steagall as Senator. It was my first day as it turned out when I was appointed to the Senate. The bankruptcy came later. I wish I’d understood better the ramifications of my vote at the time.
BPR: Secretary Clinton is the leading frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. What advantages as both a presidential candidate and then later as President do you have over Secretary Clinton?
LC: Well as a candidate, our approach to foreign relations is one of the largest differences between us, crystallized by the Iraq War vote. She took the muscular unilateral “we know it all” approach to that region without doing her homework as to whether there really were weapons of mass destruction. Then as Secretary of State, she continued that top-down approach to foreign relations. That is the biggest difference in campaigning. As far as governing, I think my experience reaching across the aisle will be very valuable. Secretary Clinton is still seen as a polarizing figure and the Republican vitriol is going to be hard to overcome. It’s unfair in many ways, but that’s just the way it is.
BPR: Turning to foreign policy – Before his re-election, Israeli PM Netanyahu spoke against a two-state solution (before taking it back later) and came and spoke to U.S Congress in a snub to President Obama. What do you believe are the next steps America should take in our relationship with Israel and ensuring a future peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians?
LC: Well the Israeli politics are Israeli politics. My preference would be is that they elect more of an advocate for a two-state solution, because I think that’s in Israel’s best interest. We all know the demographics of a growing Arab population and how democracy works. A two-state solution is better for their long term security as well.. You can’t just keep stirring up all those hornets in the region; we live in an age of nuclear weapons. We are worried about Iran getting nuclear weapons, while Pakistan is a country of 160 million Muslims and they have nuclear weapons and a sophisticated military.
BPR: Is there a problem with Muslims having nuclear weapons?
LC: No! It’s a fact. Pakistan is an Islamic country, and they have nuclear weapons. If we are going to be smart, in my view, we should try to denuclearize the region.
BPR: Israel is a majority-Jewish state with nuclear weapons. Do you see any difference between a majority-Jewish state having nuclear weapons as compared to a majority-Muslim state or majority-Christian state?
LC: No, no, I live by Realpolitik. I look at what the reality is. These are just the realities; we can’t afford to have these things flying through the sky and detonating. That’s my view.
BPR: President Obama spoke about a “pivot to Asia” in America’s foreign policy. Do you believe this is the correct shift?
LC: I don’t think we needed a re-emphasis on Asia; it is not an area of great tension. I know we do with Russia and with Venezuela. [Our relationship with] Venezuela has ramifications throughout South America — Ecuador, Bolivia, some of the like-minded countries. I don’t see any necessity to pivot to Asia. I would instead put my priorities in repairing our frayed relationships.
BPR: How should the United States respond to the Ukraine crisis and manage our relations with Russia?
LC: Poor Ukraine is caught just like the knot in a tug of war. On one side you have Europe pulling and on the other side you have Russia pulling … My view is, why is there a tug of war going on? Bring Russia into the European Union. Europe goes to the Ural Mountains; the heavily populated part of Russia technically is European. Let’s start working together. NATO shouldn’t be a threat, the EU shouldn’t be a threat. Those days should be over, but they are coming back unfortunately.
BPR: In the short-term, what are specific actions America can take right now to respond to the crisis in Ukraine?
LC: Broker the integration of Russia into more European entities. As I said, open up any atlas of Europe, and it will include that heavily populated part of Russia west of the Urals. It’s not going to happen immediately, but there are economic organizations — I don’t have them at my fingertips — but that are incremental steps for joining the EU.
BPR: How do you propose the United States does that given that the current Russian body politic is significantly anti-EU and anti-West?
LC: Well [the Russians] shouldn’t be that way. They have energy and other resources for sale. The European market is right there. I think it’s totally unnecessary.
BPR: Regardless of it being necessary or unnecessary, that is the present state on the ground. How can we work with Russia given the current political situation?
LC: At the G8 Summit in the spring of 2001 not that long ago, it was all happening then. In my view, America should not have started dictating what to do when Russia was at a time where their pride was tarnished after the Soviet Union fell. We didn’t need to rub their nose in that. Human nature being human nature, the Russians took a different path away from progressing towards the EU. At that G8 summit, Putin was there yucking it up with [Prime Minister Tony] Blair and [Chancellor Gerhard] Schröder from Germany and President Bush. I felt that, oh we had this. This is a good time right now, let’s not screw it up. Russia was right there at that G8 summit.
BPR: You are currently running for President in the 2016 election. Why do you believe you would be the most qualified person for the job?
LC: Being qualified to run for president starts with your record of accomplishments. You need somebody that has a history of getting things done, and I’ve had that. Secondly a vision of where you want to go. I’m passionate about how we can do better in the world and better at home. And then lastly, your character. I’ve had an impeccable run of public service, open to scrutiny. My motto has been “Trust Chafee” and it’s been accurate to my time in public service. You look at your record, you look at the vision where someone wants to take the community, and then their character, whether it is someone you can trust.
BPR: Why can we trust you?
LC: Because I have a record of being trustworthy. When I say something I do it. I didn’t just tell the immigrant community when I was running for Governor that I would repeal E-Verify because I needed their votes (which they expected, because they have been burned before). If I tell somebody something, I’m going to do it. I’ve earned the reputation of “Trust Chafee”.