Chafee gets points for principled leadership. But at some point, his political failings rendered his program — whatever the merits — inoperable. And along the way, he further marginalized a governor's office that was already bordering on irrelevant after eight years of Donald Carcieri.
But this year's most spectacular failures may have come in the realm of electoral politics. There was, of course, Republican financier Michael Riley, who spent almost $1 million of his own fortune on a poorly conceived challenge to Congressman James Langevin — one part anger, one part cookie-cutter attack ads.
But Riley probably didn't have much of a shot against Rhode Island's inoffensive incumbent anyway. The more consequential failures were those of a Democrat — Gemma — and the state's Republican Party chieftains, who proved unable to hold truly tarnished establishmentarians to account.
Gemma, of course, failed to unseat supremely vulnerable Congressman David Cicilline in the Democratic primary — offering up bombast and unsubstantiated charges of voter fraud where a simple reminder that the incumbent, the former mayor of Providence, had been less-than-truthful about the capital city's finances might have sufficed.
The Rhode Island GOP, for its part, failed to exploit a once-in-a-generation opportunity with the 38 Studios scandal. And it didn't even put up a candidate in one of the most conservative House districts in the state. When the voting was done, the party's already tiny Smith Hill caucus had actually shrunk.
If there are obvious consequences to the Republicans' amateurism — a less robust debate on the issues of the day — there are not-so-obvious consequences, too. Consider the 38 Studios deal.
When the General Assembly's leadership tacked $75 million onto the loan guarantee bill, it didn't bother to tell the rank-and-file that the money was all-but-greased for Curt Schilling's company.
As one observer I spoke with for this story pointed out, leadership was able to keep that information close to the vest, in part, because it didn't have to negotiate with a meaningful opposition for support for the bill.
We shouldn't hold our breath waiting for the Rhode Island GOP to get its act together. But there are other routes to a more mature politics. And the most obvious is electing a more talented breed of Democrat.
Of course, the truly skilled don't come along all that often. But in 2011, we got a glimpse of how professionals — once elected — might perform.
New Providence Mayor Angel Taveras handled the budget crisis he inherited with aplomb: laying out the scope of the challenge in a dramatic press conference and then leveraging the sense of urgency he'd created to win concessions from city unions.
Treasurer Gina Raimondo, meanwhile, won national plaudits for making a methodical case for pension reform and then pushing the bill through the General Assembly.
With both Democrats considering gubernatorial runs, we may see a more professional politics on Smith Hill in a couple of years. But the Raimondo model, in particular, raises some legitimate concerns.
Independent expenditure group EngageRI — in a campaign unlike any in recent memory — spent more than $600,000 on lobbyists and advertising to buttress the treasurer's pension push. And the group is not required to disclose its donors.