Lincoln Chafee Leaves Republican Party

Joe Gandelman passes on a Providence Journal report that Lincoln Chafee has quietly left the Republican Party that he an his late father, John, represented in the United States Senate for thirty years.

Chafee said he disaffiliated with the party he had helped lead, and his father had led before him, because the national Republican Party has gone too far away from his stance on too many critical issues, from war to economics to the environment. “It’s not my party any more,” he said.

Chafee’s departure is another step in the waning of the strain of moderate Republicanism that was once a winning political philosophy from Rhode Island and Connecticut to the Canadian border. For the first time since the Civil War, the six New England states combined now have only one Republican U.S. House member, Connecticut’s Christopher Shays.

Yesterday, he criticized Republican leaders for abandoning fiscal conservatism, once a mainstay of Republican politics, by passing tax cuts without spending cuts to balance the resulting loss of revenue. He said the “starve the beast” strategy that Republicans have used in an attempt to shrink government has undermined social programs that bolster a strong American middle class. He mentioned Pell grants, which help needy students attend college, and Head Start programs, which support the education of low-income children. Instead of supporting those “good social programs,” he said, the party’s approach was “squeeze, squeeze, squeeze.”

Gandelman wonders,

So what will happen in 2008? Will traditional, Goldwater-descended conservatives want a change in direction from the Bush brand of Republicanism? And will this mean the party will welcome RINOs or exclude them? Because if RINOs are excluded, perhaps some more of them in 2008 will leave the elephant’s party — and decide on Election Day to join the donkeys. And there are more RINOS and donkeys put together than elephants….

Strained animal analogies notwithstanding, he’s right. Last December, when a just-defeated Chafee was thinking about leaving the party, I wrote,

While I am less socially conservative and more libertarian than the current Republican platform, I’m well to the right of Chafee on most issues. I supported him in the primaries and the general election, though, because he was the best chance we had of keeping his seat in the Republican coalition. While he and Whitehouse will likely vote almost identically on key issues, Chaffee was a vote for Republican committee chairmen and Leadership and his opponent was not.

What attracted me to Chafee was what caused the majority of Rhode Islanders to vote against him despite his able service. Given their political preferences, it was absolutely the right choice.

The Chafees are what were once termed “Rockefeller Republicans.” That used to be the mainstream of the party. That ideology is now much more at home in the Democratic Party, just as the old Southern Democrat view is now more aligned with the GOP. As those old line Democrats drifted over to the Republican party over the last quarter century or so, they would say “I’m not leaving my party; my party has left me.” Chafee can reasonably say the same thing.

The problem for the GOP, though, is that it will have a difficult time regaining its status as a majority party if it can’t appeal to the populations of places like Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine. Since the South is now solidly in the Republican camp, there’s no more low hanging fruit. And immigration and migration are eroding their hold in places like Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia, meaning even the Solid South is unlikely to remain that way.

Republicans, at least at the presidential level, have managed to hold on to many of those voters in recent years, despite alienating them on social issues, by convincing them that handing national security policy over to the Democrats is just too risky. Given the public’s overwhelming dissatisfaction with a Republican president’s war policy, though, that’s going to be a hard sell come next November.

While Goldwater was defeated in a landslide in 1964, the small government conservatism that he ran on then would be a breath of fresh air now. It would put New England back in play without seriously alienating the South. None of the major 2008 contenders, though, is running on that brand of Republicanism.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rick DeMent says:

    Tragically, small government ideology is wholly incompatible with winning national elections were the only real power is the ability to horse trade pork.

  2. Triumph says:

    Chafee is just trying to curry favor with the Democrat party by engaging in an opportunistic publicity stunt.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    there are more RINOS and donkeys put together than elephants

    And there are more DINOS and elephants put together than there are donkeys.

    But much more to the point there are significantly more independents, DINO’s, and RINO’s than there are either Republicans or Democrats (exclusive). The reasons that the two major political parties remain at the helm are some combination of inertia, organization, and election laws that favor the two main political parties.

  4. Boyd says:

    Wait, I’m confused, Rick. What are we trading here, horses or pigs?

  5. Jim says:

    Yesterday, he criticized Republican leaders for abandoning fiscal conservatism, once a mainstay of Republican politics, by passing tax cuts without spending cuts to balance the resulting loss of revenue.

    Will someone please ask Mr. Chafee to check the past several years’ tax revenues, and have him point out the “loss of revenue”? I don’t think he’ll find any.

  6. Andy says:

    It would put New England back in play without seriously alienating the South.

    In case y’all hadn’t noticed, the South only likes to talk about small government, and then we go and accept large federal subsidies, try to get the government to imprison scary brown people and like to have our church teachings become law.

  7. Al Bee says:

    Hmmm! Losing Chaffee is like losing a headache. The headache will return. The frailities of men like Chaffee are beyond the ken of most men. Some must be jollied or humored and I never thought him worth the effort. .