Lincoln Chafee: 'Against the Tide' Toward the Center

Lincoln Chafee

Former Senator Lincoln Chafee was a moderate Republican during the first six years of the George W. Bush administration. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images

During his tenure in the U.S. Senate, Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee was often called the body's most liberal Republican. A determinedly mainstream legislator now registered as an Independent, he bucked his party on a number of hot-button issues, including same-sex marriage and the war in Iraq.

Chafee joins Fresh Air to talk about his new book, Against the Tide: How a Compliant Congress Empowered a Reckless President. It is an insider's memoir about the Republican Party's rightward drift, and about life at the political center during George W. Bush's first six years in the White House.

Excerpt: 'Against the Tide'

'Against the Tide' cover

Early in December 2000, Senator Specter asked Richard Cheney, our Republican vice presidential candidate, to have lunch with us on Wednesday, December 13. The vote-counting fiasco in Florida was under way and no one knew whether Texas Governor George W. Bush or Vice President Al Gore had been elected the nation's 43rd president. Then, the night before we were to meet with Mr. Cheney, the news broke: the U.S. Supreme Court had declared the Florida recount unconstitutional. The Court authorized Katharine Harris, Florida's Republican secretary of state, to declare Bush and Cheney victorious.

We Republicans had won the presidency by a single vote in the Electoral College and a single vote in the Supreme Court. In the executive branch, winning by a whisker is as good as winning in a landslide, but not so in the Senate. For the first time in a century we had a Senate split down the middle, 50-50, with a Republican vice president available to break a tie in our favor. That whisker-thin margin of victory had real consequences to my way of thinking.

It meant that our small club of five moderate Republican votes would be vital to President-elect Bush if he had any hope of getting his legislative initiatives through.

That was why Vice President-elect Richard Cheney came to our lunch that day: Not to say he needed us, but to tell us that he and George W. Bush were in charge and no one else.

In steady, quiet tones, the Vice President-elect laid out a shockingly divisive political agenda for the new Bush administration, glossing over nearly every pledge the Republican ticket had made to the American voter. President-elect Bush had promised that healing, but now we moderate Republicans were hearing Richard Cheney articulate the real agenda: A clashist approach on every issue, big and small, and any attempt at consensus would be a sign of weakness. We would seek confrontation on every front. He said nothing about education or the environment or health care; it was all about these new issues that were rarely, if ever, touted in the campaign. The new administration would divide Americans into red and blue, and divide nations into those who stand with us or against us. I knew that what the Vice President-elect was saying would rip the closely divided Congress apart. We moderates had often voted with President Clinton on things that powerful Republican constituencies didn't like: an increase in the minimum wage, a patients' bill of rights, and campaign finance reform. Mr. Cheney knew this, but he ticked off the issues at the top of his agenda and did it fearlessly. It made no difference to him that we were potential adversaries; he was going down his to-do list and checking off Confrontation Number 1.

Senator Arlen Specter spoke first. As the most junior member, I would have my say last, if at all. I could hardly sit still as I waited to hear my respected friend wade into this outrageous manifesto.

And then, in a moment I can only describe as infuriating, Senator Specter took no leadership role in representing the moderate point of view. He acquiesced, and others followed his example.

As each of my colleagues spoke in turn, I waited for one of them to push back. Surely one of them would have the presence of mind to say, Whoa! Time out! What are you talking about, Mister Vice President? You weren't elected to scrap international agreements. You never said to the voters: Elect us and we promise to bring back deficit spending and drive the next generation into debt.

But no one resisted. We sat there and listened as Mr. Cheney made divisive pronouncements of policy that would come as a complete surprise to many of the Americans who had voted to elect the Bush/Cheney ticket. I stopped waiting for someone to challenge Mr. Cheney when I saw my Republican friends around the table nodding in agreement as he held forth.

I was at a loss to explain my colleagues' compliant behavior then. I remain so now. It may have been an all-too-human response to the circumstances of the time. Anxious weeks of uncertainty were finally over. Now we knew the outcome of the election. The bitterness of the Florida recount was behind us. My colleagues seemed happy and relieved just to know who was in charge. And they seemed a little awestruck. This is the Vice President of the United States.

The contentious and destructive agenda that Mr. Cheney dropped on us was troubling enough, but what really unnerved me was his attitude. He welcomed conflict. We Republicans had promised America exactly the opposite. In the presidential debates, moderator Jim Lehrer asked Governor Bush to describe the foreign policy he would adopt, if elected. Candidate Bush said he would be humble in foreign affairs; that if we were arrogant, other countries would resent us. Now his running mate was telling us the new administration would make a point of being arrogant and divisive. Mr. Cheney was brazen in his pronouncements. A humble foreign policy? His attitude was anything but humble. He said that the campaign was over and that our actions in office would not be dictated by what had to be said in the campaign. And he pronounced this deception with no emotion or window dressing of any kind. He was fearless, matter of fact, and smug.

I wondered, where does Cheney get the confidence to say these things a few hours after the Court established him as our Vice President-elect? Where did he get the authority to make this radical departure from the President-elect's own campaign rhetoric?

I had supported Governor George W. Bush over Senator John McCain in the 2000 Rhode Island presidential primary. I met the Texas Governor for the first time in 1999, when he came to Rhode Island to raise money. I contributed and sincerely applauded his remarks to supporters at the Providence Convention Center. He had good campaign patter, and I was impressed. He said all the right things. I thought he could win on his pledge to bring a new, unifying atmosphere to Washington, and that he might even be as good and decent a president as his father had been. He seemed moderate enough to win support from all sides, and he had the Bush name. After the bitter partisan atmosphere of the Clinton impeachment, voters looked back with affection at the governor's father.

I liked that the governor had worked cooperatively with Democrats in the Texas Legislature. If leaders in both parties could rally around him, he was just what the country needed. America stood at the summit of power, emerging from the Cold War as an economic, cultural and military force without equal. We had wasted valuable years in partisan bickering, but our moment in history was still at hand. What a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to do good things in the world.

Then came that devastating first day after George W. Bush and Richard Cheney prevailed in the Supreme Court. If we were to believe Mr. Cheney, the President-elect would not only reignite the partisanship of the Clinton-Gingrich era but would make it even more toxic. Mr. Cheney tore our best campaign promises to shreds and the moderates acquiesced instead of pelting him with outrage. It was clear to me then that there would be no key bloc of moderate votes helping to shape legislation and reunite America over the next four years. In any event, Cheney was not asking for support – he was ordering us to provide it. The President-elect had his agenda; we were just along for the ride.

My heart sank as my colleagues peeled away, one by one. It was the most demoralizing moment of my seven-year tenure in the Senate.

When it was my turn to speak, I made the case that our five votes would be crucially important in a 50-50 Senate. I chose my words carefully, and probably stammered with the effort to contain my fury. We were on the cusp of a new millennium that held enormous promise for American leadership in the world, and what I had just heard was petty, arrogant and irresponsible. It threatened to lead in exactly the wrong direction.

I spoke in the perhaps too-optimistic hope that I might yet rally the moderates to seriously apprehend the implications of the new agenda. When I told Mr. Cheney, "Our votes at this table are important," he could hardly be bothered. He gave me the back of his hand with a truism: "Every vote is important."

There was no support to be had, and lunch was over.

Excerpted from Against the Tide: How a Compliant Congress Empowered a Reckless President, by Lincoln Chafee, with permission from Thomas Dunne Books. Copyright (c) 2008 by Lincoln Chafee. All rights reserved.

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How a Compliant Congress Empowered a Reckless President

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