Lincoln Chafee’s Problem: To Move First and Lead? or Follow Bush & Co.? or Follow Hagel?


When most observers of the John Bolton jousting match were focusing on whether Lincoln Chafee was going to support or oppose Bolton, many of his advocates and opponents did not realize that the testimony that unfolded in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as well as other disconcerting reports in the media had seriously shaken other members, particularly Republican members, of the Committee.
Endorsing or working against Bolton’s nomination is not a partisan matter — or should not be. There are lots of Republicans irritated by the carelessness of this nomination by President Bush. But what has played in much of the press — around the entire nation — is that the U.S. Senate is about to confirm a person who demonstrates tendencies that seem “monstrous” to some. In a nation where people value fairness, civility, balance, and decency — supporting Bolton raises other potential costs for Senators.
Workplace issues matter to much of the country, and strangely enough, the public is paying attention to the degree that Bolton’s bombastic and vindictive style run counter to America’s highly-valued workplace ethic.
Thus, on the Republican side, there are many Senators — including Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, George Voinovich of Ohio, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, maybe more — whose commitment to Bolton has become “less robust.”
Politically speaking, Lincoln Chafee figured that most of his constituents would not care about who the administration’s Ambassador to the U.N. was. He has reportedly said that he doesn’t think many of his constituents even know who Bolton is.
It has been a long time since I have heard a national politician publicly ‘count on’ the ignorance of his constituents on a public policy matter.
And despite opening up one of the key areas of concern about Bolton on his opposition to the Bush administration’s foreign policy on North Korea and attempts to derail it — as reported here (with permission) in the Economist magazine and here in Sidney Blumenthal’s brilliant article this week in Salon — Chafee seems to be running as fast as he can from empirical evidence on Bolton that is screaming as loudly as Bolton apparently does through the nation’s media.
Chafee may be in an even deeper whole than he might guess if Hagel or any one of these other Senators jumps ship before he does. He will then most certainly vote against Bolton if another Republican Senator does, but then he only reinforces an impression of weakness. If he stays with Bush if one of the other Republicans moves to oppose Bolton, then Chafee looks foolish and overly beholden to Dick Cheney.
As I’ve written before, there is much about Senator Chafee and his attempt to be a conciliatory voice between right and left that appeals to me, but in this case he runs the risk of being run over by his failure to take a principled stand.
He himself may be creating the very political issue — about himself rather than John Bolton — that he should never have created.
I think that the only rational calculation for Chafee if he thinks that other Senators might move against Bolton is to move first. Otherwise, he looks like a Senator too easily squished, tugged, pulled, and run over.
I feel badly for him actually — and hope that he gets ahead of this.
— Steve Clemons