The Milquetoast and the Blowhard

Rhode Island’s Shakespearean Senate battle
By ADAM REILLY  |  September 8, 2006

060908_politics_main
SWAGGERING BULL?: Cranston mayor Steve Laffey (left) is running a cocky, McCain-style campaign, painting incumbent Lincoln Chaffee as a blue-blooded liberal

BARRINGTON, RI, AUGUST 30 — Now is not the time for Lincoln Chafee to be timid. The seven-year incumbent US senator is trying to fend off a nasty Republican-primary challenge from Cranston mayor Steve Laffey, who’s painting Chafee as a weak-kneed moderate and running at him from the right. And Laffey may be getting the better of the battle: late last week, a Rhode Island College poll showed him leading Chafee by a hefty margin — 51-34 percent — among likely Republican-primary voters.

But at this particular moment, standing outside the Barrington Shaw’s Supermarket a day before the aforementioned poll came out, Chafee is weirdly incapable of mustering the intensity his situation demands. There’s a tentativeness when he approaches possible voters, an almost fragile delicacy to his retail politicking. Chafee’s preferred opening line (“Best wishes — Senator Chafee”) suggests he’s saying goodbye. When he puts his arm around someone, he holds his elbow out from their body, thereby keeping physical contact to a minimum. And his quiet pleas for votes — “September 12th, need your help” — often come a second too late, when the intended audience is already out of earshot.

Still, people seem pleased to see him. A Shaw’s employee waits patiently with his dustpan while Chafee finishes another conversation, then mentions the statue of Chafee’s father in Bristol’s Cold State Park (John Chafee was governor of Rhode Island and later represented the state in the US Senate) and vows his support. Several people pointedly wish Chafee good luck. And when the senator tries to shake one middle-aged woman’s hand, she acts like she’s just met a rock star: “Oh my god!” she yelps, hands fluttering around her face. “Oh! This is the most exciting time of my life!”

When I ask, Chafee says he’s feeling good about the race, but it’s an unconvincing take. At one point, the senator tells his three aides how much harder it is to campaign outside in cold weather. “Well,” he adds, “I hope I’m standing here in October.” “You will be,” his spokesman promises. Later, as we discuss the dynamics of the campaign, Chafee sounds like a man who’s feeling the pressure in his bones. “I’ve been up there on the tightrope,” Chafee says, pantomiming keeping his balance. “Having to run a primary in which the electorate wants me to support the administration, and the other electorate in the general election angry if I ever cast a vote with them.”

Clash of the archetypes
The Chafee-Laffey fight has many subtexts. It’s partly about the balance of political power in Washington, DC: since recent polling shows Chafee narrowly beating Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in November, and Laffey losing badly, a Laffey victory would seem to bode well for the Democrats. (That’s why the national Republican establishment is squarely behind Chafee, even though Laffey’s ideology is more simpatico to the Bush administration’s.) It’s also about the future of the Republican Party: Laffey’s main beef with Chafee is that he too frequently sides with liberals — e.g., against the Iraq war and tax cuts for the wealthy — and a Laffey win would be a bad omen for Republican moderates everywhere. And it’s about class: Chafee is a blue-blooded WASP from one of Rhode Island’s Five Families, Laffey a self-made millionaire who plays up his humble roots (his father was a tool manufacturer) and jibes at Chafee’s alleged sense of entitlement. But on its most elemental level, Chafee-versus-Laffey is a showdown between two radically disparate personalities.

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