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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Who the Hell Is Lincoln Chafee and Why Is He Running for President?

Understanding the latest long-shot candidate who thinks he can beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
Lincoln Chafee with a sympathetic employee of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service via Flickr

Presidential campaign announcements often inspire a range of emotion: fanfare, excitement, optimism, anger, abject terror. They're moments in which the country gets a preview of its possible future, giving voters a minute to consider whom they might vote for and why. But with the presidential campaign announcement of Lincoln Chafee, who will announce his 2016 bid for the Democratic nomination Wednesday evening, the response is a little different: Who the hell is Lincoln Chafee?


This may be the first time in the history of the United States in which residents of Rhode Island know something the rest of the country does not. Chafee was a Republican US Senator from the Tiniest State from 1999 through 2007, first appointed to fill his deceased father's seat, and then serving one full term before losing his reelection campaign in 2006. In 2010, he was elected governor, only by this time he was no longer a Republican, but an Independent. Now he's running for president as a Democrat. This is a man who appreciates variety.

In fact, Chafee was a peak RINO, a term conservatives like to throw around for Republicans who don't like to talk about guns or baby-killers. Chafee was pretty much the most liberal Republican in the US Senate for the entire time he was in office. He supported gay marriage and higher taxes on the wealthy, voted against the war in Iraq, and opposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Instead of supporting incumbent George W. Bush in his 2004 reelection efforts, Chafee put down the other George Bush as a write-in candidate. Because in addition to being versatile, Lincoln Chafee is also very clever.

The other thing you need to know about Chafee is that, after attending a series of elite Northeastern schools, like Andover and Brown University, he packed up and moved west to learn how to become a farrier, which is someone who shoes horses. He went to horseshoeing school in Montana, and then did that for seven years. Lincoln Chafee: He'll Shoe America.


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Anyway, none of this answers the question of why Chafee is running for president. His position couldn't be weaker: Chafee has zero name recognition nationwide, and he has literally never won an election as a Democrat before. He's also running against Hillary Clinton, whose nomination seems so inevitable Democrats keep forgetting they haven't already elected her. Needless to say, Chafee won't win this one—it's not even worth considering the possibility, intellectually or otherwise.

So what exactly is the point? Good question. Apparently, even people in his home state can't even figure out why Chafee's running, which means the rest of us never really had a shot at understanding his motives. The New York Times wrote today that even "political analysts in Rhode Island were surprised to learn of Mr. Chafee's presidential aspirations.

"Some have suggested that Mr. Chafee is looking to rebrand himself after opting not to seek re-election as governor amid weak poll numbers and the threat of a primary challenge," the Times piece continued. "However, even critics say that he is sincere and that his presence will press [Hillary] Clinton on foreign policy."

Maureen Moakley, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island and a frequent commentator on the state's politics, thinks this assessment is on target. "Lincoln Chafee is clearly in that category of running for political or career purposes in terms of rebranding himself, because he had a difficult situation in Rhode Island," Moakley told me in an interview today.


"It seems to me that at least at first glance, it's more understandable from an outsider's point of view that he would run, because after all, he was a governor, he was a senator, he comes from a prestigious family," she continued. "The problem is that he was not successful as governor, even though he had some really good policies and supported some really good policy initiatives."

But while Chafee had a reputation in Rhode Island for sticking to his principles—he oversaw the state's legalization of gay marriage and pushed through pension and education funding reforms—he was also known for having some weird priorities, the most obvious example being the fiasco over what to call the Christmas tree in the Rhode Island statehouse. Even as the state's economy languished, plagued by some of the country's highest unemployment rates, Chafee spent an incredible amount of time insisting it be called a "holiday tree." You can imagine how well that turned out.

"This is the most Catholic state in the country, and there was a lot of pushback, including pushback from the bishop," said Moakley. "Instead of dropping it, he expended an enormous amount of political capital for virtually no gain. Given the fact that the media had already begun to stereotype him as somewhat inept, this only fed into the stereotype."

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After debacles like that, it makes sense that Chafee would seek out the quickest—and most conspicuous—fix to his reputation. Like, say, a presidential run, even if it's doomed from the outset. Still, the way Chafee's gone about launching his White House bid has so far only reinforced suspicions that he is, in fact, incompetent.

As the Associated Press reported this morning, Chafee has made no attempt to actually, you know, set up a campaign operation. The most visible campaign activity for Chafee so far has been his wife's Facebook posts, first complaining about how little attention Lincoln had been getting since announcing his exploratory committee —"No one has contacted him. so SAD!" she wrote in April—and then wondering aloud whether anyone had the login credentials to his old page when he was governor, because, well, the Chafees certainly didn't.

It appears that Stephanie Chafee has now closed her Facebook page, but as of this morning, her most recent activity appears to be taking a quiz on 12 etiquette questions from a website called She got A+, perfectly polite, so even if her husband's actual interest in winning the White House appears to be nearly zero, at least he has a qualified First Lady.

Kevin Lincoln is on Twitter.