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September 20, 2006

Chafee: A Symptom of the GOP’s Incumbency Disease


The Republican establishment has fallen ill. A new virus, in the shape of RINO (Republicans In Name Only), incumbents has penetrated it so deeply so as to alter its identity. Whether the illness was brought upon by the Bush administration, difficult elections or loss of a moral compass is not clear, but what is certain is that the party cannot remain in power for long without a serious change in policy.


Last week’s Rhode Island Senate primary was a perfect example of the Republican establishment’s complete obsession with the protection of its incumbents at the cost of principle. The race saw Senator and self-proclaimed Republican Lincoln Chafee trying to hold on to his seat in the face of serious opposition from Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey, a conservative Republican who presented himself as the voice of those disaffected with the incumbent senator.


Republicans nationwide rejoiced at the prospect of unseating Senator Chafee, and contributions poured in from around the country into the coffers of the previously unknown Laffey. Little did they know, however, that they would be vociferously fought back – not by Democrats, but by the same Republican establishment to whom they had most probably written checks as well.


While the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) spent $1.2 million mostly on ads attacking Laffey’s credibility, the Republican National Committee (RNC) unleashed the 72-hour get-out-the-vote effort usually reserved for general elections. Even Laura Bush made the trip to Rhode Island to campaign for the same senator who refused to vote for her husband in 2004.


But why would the highest-ranking Republicans feel so strongly about protecting Chafee from an unquestionably more “Republican” opponent? After all, Chafee is a champion of abortion rights, opponent of tax cuts and a supporter of gay marriage. He was one of the few Republicans to oppose drilling in ANWR, and the only Republican Senator to vote for a non-binding timetable for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.


The establishment’s rationale was clear: Protect the incumbents because they have a much better shot at re-election, and yes, even if they use the Republican platform as toilet paper. The RNC and NRSC saw Chafee as a more “electable” Republican in Rhode Island, and that is all they wanted to know.


A six-year-old can tell you that in a two-party system, the candidate who is closer to the center of the political spectrum stands a better chance at being elected. But Chafee isn’t just a centrist. He is very much on the left side of the spectrum. Hence for those who associate Republicans with the right (everyone), it becomes clear that a Republican on the left side of the political spectrum is no longer a Republican. This concept, it seems, is too obvious to necessitate an explanation, but when you have President Bush, Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman acting irrationally, doubts about its blatancy are inevitably raised.


Republicans are conservatives. Their leaders are in theory and practice expected to support small government, low taxes, traditional marriage and an end to the practice of abortion. In the opening years of the 21st Century, they are also thought to support drilling in ANWR and staying in Iraq until the job is done. Republican leaders also lead their constituents in voting for Republican presidents.


Chafee has actively stood in opposition to every single one of these expectations, fairly standard ones for Republican Senators. Yet the establishment is willing to sacrifice all of these issues in order to maintain an additional Senator under the “R” column. The question, however, is inevitably raised: What is the significance of that “R” if the Senator it describes votes against “R” values as actively as Democrats do? The fact of the matter is that a Democratic Senator would vote much the same way that Chafee does.


Perhaps, in light of this, the Republican establishment could mobilize its troops and spend its millions on races that involve actual alternatives, such as Maryland and New Jersey, where Republicans stand an excellent chance of capturing Democratic seats.


But no. The establishment instead prefers to proudly invest its money in a publicity campaign against an ideal conservative and in favor of a pro-choice, tax-and-spend, liberal politician with an “R” next to his name. It feels no shame in targeting conservatives’ money at getting out the independent and Democratic vote in the Rhode Island Republican Primary.


Though the Republican Party’s strategists expect to get this little something out of a Chafee re-election, they don’t even have a guarantee that such is the case. Chafee might very well follow in the footsteps of Jim Jeffords and become an Independent, or even switch his party affiliation to Democrat. After all, he publicly proclaimed that he refused to vote for President Bush, and the latter still supports him. What could possibly shame him into remaining in the Republican column?


The establishment’s sacrifice of conservative principles will surely come back to haunt it. While Republicans waste their resources on unpredictable senators such as Chafee and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, the Democrats are encouraging ideological purity in their ranks by ousting the likes of Joe Lieberman.


At this rate, the Republican establishment might have the majority column, but it won’t have the votes on critical legislation. And until it ceases its support for social and fiscal liberals for the sake of incumbency, it won’t have my money either.

© 2006 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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