Thursday, October 07, 2004

A Moment Of Zell

The Republican Party has its version of Zell Miller. No, I'm not talking about Senator Jim Jeffords from Vermont who left the Republican Party to become an Independent early in Bush's term, citing the extreme policies of the administration (including Bush's famous flip-flop on carbon dioxide emissions standards that left Jeffords' legislation backing up Bush's campaign promise to die on the vine in committee) and the rancorous hostility to moderates emanating from within the ranks of Tom Delay's Congress.

Neither am I talking about former New Jersey governor and EPA Administrator under Bush, Christine Todd Whitman, who resigned from her post at the EPA on somewhat acrimonious terms over numerous public disagreements with Bush over environmental policy (including the carbon dioxide emissions flip-flop that so incensed Jeffords). She recently authored a book due out early 2005 entitled, Its My Party Too, a reference to the increasing marginalization of moderates by the strident Republican leadership.

Nor am I talking about a handful of Republican Senators (Lugar, Hagel, McCain amongst others) who have recently begun to openly criticize the President's handling of post-invasion Iraq, as exemplified by
some comments at a hearing into the shift of spending from reconstruction to security. Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, called it "exasperating for anybody look at this from any vantage point," and Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, said, "It's beyond pitiful, it's beyond embarrassing. It is now in the zone of dangerous." Harsh words, but not the Zell I'm hunting.

I am talking about lifelong Republican and Senator from Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, who has
recently made an announcement that seems shocking considering the context: despite his Party affiliation, he will not vote for George W. Bush for president in November. Far from the bluster, vitriol and over the top prevarications spewed by Zell Miller at the Republican National Convention, Chafee is a calm and reasoned politician, not interested in seeking the limelight to air his concerns. It helps that he sticks to the facts and to honest differences of opinion rather than wild mischaracterizations and propaganda. A glance at Chafee's Republican Party bona fides might explain his non-Zellian demeanor:

Chafee was destined to be a Republican since birth when his mother and father (himself a Republican Senator from Rhode Island up until his death in 1999) named him "Lincoln" after the first Republican president. His Party allegiance never faltered over the arc of his life in the private sector and public service. His family also had close personal and professional ties to the Bush family. Growing up, Chafee attended prep school with, and befriended, the president's brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Chafee's father, the late Senator John Chafee, was close to the first President Bush, which explains why "former President George Bush came to Rhode Island and raised $300,000 for Mr. Chafee, an unheard of sum for a Republican in tiny Rhode Island" during Chafee's Senate run in 2000.

His personal and political history makes it difficult for the President's supporters to dismiss Chafee as a Bush hater. So then, how does a career Republican, and multi-generational friend of the Bush clan, find himself in the curious position of not supporting a Republican named Bush in his bid for the presidency? Chafee offers this account of his journey:

One day after the Supreme Court sealed the 2000 election for George W. Bush, his running mate, Dick Cheney, went to the Capitol for a private lunch with five moderate Republican senators. The agenda he laid out that day in December 2000 stunned Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, sending Mr. Chafee on a painful journey of political conscience that, he said in an interview last week, has culminated with his decision not to vote for Mr. Bush in November.

"I literally was close to falling off my chair," Mr. Chafee said, recounting the vice president's proposals for steep tax cuts, missile defense programs and abandoning the Kyoto environmental accords. "It was no room for discussion. I said, 'Well, you're going to need us; it's a 50-50 Senate, you're going to need us moderates.' He said, 'Well, we need everybody.'"

For Mr. Chafee...that day was the beginning of an estrangement with the president, whom he had worked to elect. In the months since, he has opposed Mr. Bush on everything from tax cuts to gay marriage and the war in Iraq. Now, this life-long Republican has concluded that he cannot cast his ballot for the leader of his party.
Chafee went on to describe his anger at what he calls the:

Broken campaign promises by the current occupant of the White House. He said Mr. Bush's promise to be "a uniter, not a divider" resonated with him, as did Mr. Bush's remark in a 2000 debate that the United States would have to be humble, not arrogant, to be respected in the world.

"As soon as victory was achieved came people with a completely different agenda than being humble," he said. Asked if he regretted supporting the president, he said, "I regret that some of the answers to important questions weren't more forthright and that there wasn't more adherence to campaign rhetoric."
I think that translates to a "yes."

"I'll vote Republican," he said, explaining that he would choose a write-in candidate, perhaps George Bush the elder, as a symbolic act of protest. Asked if he wanted Senator John Kerry to be president, Mr. Chafee shook his head sadly, as if to say he could not entertain the question. "I've been disloyal enough," he said. [emphasis added throughout]
I think that also translates to a "yes."

Chafee echoed a refrain that is becoming all too frequent along the fringes of the increasingly polarized Republican Party; that he was "waiting for the moderate wing of the party to rise again." In a prior piece entitled
A Tale of Two Parties, I discussed the fact that the Republican Party platform of George W. Bush's 2004 campaign stood in sharp contrast not only to his Democratic opponents, but also to the platform the GOP when his father ran in 1992 - and in a bizarre twist, the 2004 platform is even more extreme than the platform in 2000 when Bush ran against Gore.

There is a battle raging, as we speak, for the soul of the Republican Party, with the conservative wing currently winning the tug of war, pulling the Party ever toward the pole. The internal struggle has been punctuated by pitched primary battles between moderates and conservatives. The battles have been the same for newcomers like moderate Pete Coors who fought off a spirited challenge from conservative stalwart Bob Schaeffer in the Colorado primary, as well as long time incumbents like moderate Senator Arlen Specter (PA) who narrowly eked out a victory in his primary contest with ultra-conservative Patrick Toomey.

One of Toomey's chief backers was the conservative group the Club For Growth, which has led the fight to defeat candidates they define as RINOs or "Republicans In Name Only." Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, acknowledges that his organization's goal is to make moderate Republicans an endangered species. "The problem with the moderates in Congress is they basically water down the Republican message and what you get is something that infuriates the Republican base," Mr. Moore said. Can you blame Chafee, Specter, Coors, Whitman, Hagel, McCain, Graham, Lugar and others for feeling besieged if these forces are lined up against them - within their own Party.

For these moderates, everything hangs in the balance with this election. Christine Todd Whitman, assesses the impact on the Party dynamic thusly:

Frankly, if the president wins walking away with this, maybe the country is in a different place than where the moderate Republicans are...If he loses, it is an absolute validation of the fact that you cannot be a national party if you are excluding people.
As Whitman predicts if Bush wins, the conservative leadership, validated and emboldened by their victory, will steer the Party even farther to the right. Don't be fooled by the centrist facade on display in the prime time slots during the convention. Although the speakers chosen may have moderate leanings, their message was pure and unadulturated red meat for the base. If Bush wins, their autonomy and independent thinking will be further penned in. Tom Delay and the conservative wing want total loyalty and uniformity of ideology. The only options for the last of the moderates will be to convert to the Democratic Party, follow Jeffords into the Independent fold, or jump on the ultra-conservative band-wagon.

When he was asked if he went to bed at night wondering how he could remain a Republican, Chafee gave a telling response:

"Yes," he said, "I don't deny that." He's probably not the only one.

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