In early June, former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee announced his 2016 bid for President of the United States. The Politic spoke to Governor Chafee about the Democratic field, domestic and foreign policy, plus his past life as a maker of horseshoes. Find more of our 2016 coverage here.
The Politic: What I first wanted to talk about was your political background, which is a little different than most of the other candidates. You started out as a Republican when you first held office and then you kind of shifted over the years and then changed party affiliations when you were governor. Were there any particular events that moved you from a conservative mindset towards a more liberal one? Were there any particular issues?
It was the issues that made me switch parties. There was no real tactical thinking involved, it was just the issues were changing for the Republican Party. There was less and less room for the moderate liberal Republicans in the party, and I think the straw that broke the camel’s back that really pushed me out of the party was giving up our fiscal responsibility. When I was in the Senate, the Republican Party controlled the White House, the Senate, and the House for almost all the time I was there, and we took surpluses and turned them into deficits. The war in Iraq, the tax cuts prescription drug benefits, these are all trillion dollar items that we didn’t pay for, and so on top of the priority on social issues — abortion, gay marriage, all these social issues with which I vehemently disagreed [with the Republican Party] on — the worst of it was to be so fiscally irresponsible.
The Politic: Do you think you would still identify as a fiscal conservative or do you support traditionally liberal policies, such as the expansion of welfare, that the Republican Party of today is trying to cut back?
Well, the big difference that I have with the Republican Party is that I want to pay for what I buy, and I don’t want to put it off for future generations. No politician likes taxes, and any kind of fees and revenue, but the responsibility that we have when we get into politics is to be honest about the debt we’re incurring, and if it takes taxes to pay for it, you just have to be honest, and pay for what we’re buying. I don’t know if you would call it fiscally liberal or conservative, but I believe in government being a force for people’s lives, and that takes revenue. I’ve shown through my career at the local, state, and federal level that I’ll have the courage to raise that revenue to pay for the programs.
The Politic: The Democratic primary is surprisingly pretty loaded right now- not as much as is the Republican, but how do you feel you’re differentiated from the other candidates? People kind of assumed at the outset that Hillary would be the nominee, but Bernie Sanders and even to some extent Martin O’Malley have been making runs at her and kind of chipping away at the lead. What differentiates you from Hillary, or even Sanders or O’Malley, in terms of policy?
Well, there’s three things. First of all, my experience. I’m the only one that has been a mayor, a governor, and a United States Senator. So I have the local experience, I have the state experience, and I have the federal experience, and no other candidate, Republican or Democrat, has been a mayor, a governor, and a U.S. Senator.
Secondly, my high ethical standards. I haven’t had any scandals in my almost thirty year career of public service.
And thirdly, my vision of the future is different from the other candidates. I want to make peace in the world. I’m not bellicose, belligerent. As strong as this country is, I think we have the responsibility to be the peacemaker. And that brings revenue home for much more beneficial purposes. I think my record, my high ethical standards, and my vision of working for a more peaceful world, ending these conflicts around the world. We have the stature to be a leader in that area.
The Politic: On your campaign website, it mentions “Prosperity through Peace” in the Middle East. What do you think of the Iran deal in its current form? Does it go far enough? And what would it take for you to “ok” military intervention in the Middle East? What role does the United States have to play in mediating conflicts in the Middle East other than negotiations?
Well first of all, the Iran deal is an absolute blueprint for what we should be doing in the world, even with our adversaries: sitting down, finding common ground, and building areas that we agree. I am absolutely, emphatically, one hundred percent in favor of the Iran deal. Not only is it good between the United States and Iran, but the fact that the Russians, and the Chinese, and the Brits, and the Germans, and the French were all part of putting it together is very very helpful for other issues that we have to deal with in the world, and particularly in the Middle East. The Russians are already helping us in Syria, and with the Turkish and the Kurds, and so there are many beneficial spin-offs from the work that we did putting together the Iran deal.
As far as when do you engage in a war, there are certain criteria. It should always be a last resort. It’s a colossal failure of everything once you have to have that option, in my view, and I believe it should be done through the multilateral international acceptance and that we formed the UN seventy years ago. To avoid war- after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we don’t ever want to see that again, and so I would say it would have to be sanctioned by the United Nations, and those are the criteria.
The Politic: What do you think about the current defense budget in the United States? Is there room to shrink it? In terms of fiscal responsibility, is there anything we can look at potentially cutting from our military spending?
If we can get some resolution to these conflicts overseas, then we can start looking at where we can cut the military budget — the peace dividend, it’s called. But as we go through these negotiations, it’s very important to be strong militarily, and I’d like to refer to the great seal of the United States of America with the eagle and two talons. One has the olive branch, the other has the arrows, and I think that’s a fitting symbol. We should be strong militarily, but I think we should have that olive branch and always be trying to avoid conflict.
The Politic: Let’s come back to domestic issues a little bit. Immigration has been a big deal in the early months of this campaign, particularly in the Republican primary where you have people like Donald Trump making controversial statements about immigrants. Where do you stand particularly on what the Obama administration has done in terms of trying to start some type of immigration reform, and how would you take it further. Or, would you take it further?
Well, I go way back on my support for immigration reform. Back in 2005, Senator John McCain and Senator Ted Kennedy, two very different senators, put together an immigration reform bill, ten years ago, and there were only nine cosponsors, and Senator Chafee was one of the nine. It was a bipartisan group, Republicans and Democrats. Senator Clinton was in the Senate at the time, and she did not cosponsor McCain-Kennedy, but I did. It was a path to citizenship, border security, had an emphasis on learning English- it was a very, very good bill, in fact, it would be relevant today if it were reintroduced. And then as governor, I was a champion for the immigrant community. My first act as governor was to repeal the previous governor’s e-verify order, which was an executive order, my very first act as governor. I promised the immigrant community it would be my very first act and I lived up to that promise. And we also passed a very controversial, in Rhode Island, in-state tuition for undocumented students, what some called the DREAM Act.
The Politic: Another issue that you’ve been pretty vocal on is environmental issues. A talking point on your website says that its one of the biggest issues to face our country, especially in the coming years, especially for the younger generation. How much should the federal government be involved in protecting the environment, and have we gone past the point of being able to undo what we’ve done to it?
These issues — it always goes back to my leaving the Republican Party, whether it’s immigration, fiscal responsibility, now we’re talking about the environment — these are all issues that my old party used to be good on. I mean, John McCain was the one who introduced the immigration bill and President Nixon was a champion for clean air and clean water, but that’s changed, and you mentioned it’s an important issue for our country; I’d even go beyond that and say it’s an important issue for our planet. Yes, the federal government definitely has a responsibility, as do all the other countries, to look at our emissions. It’s not too late. It’s never too late. Nature has always shown a tremendous resiliency, if human beings address the pollution issues. Acid rain back in the eighties is a very good example. We changed our emissions standards and were very effective in dealing with acid rain, and now it’s global warming, and extreme weather, and all the human activity associated with carbon dioxide. A great way to address it is through the electricity generating power plants, and all the countries- China, India, developing countries, the Europeans have been a leader, the Japanese of course, had nuclear problems, but they were trying to address carbon emissions through their electricity generating power plants. That’s a main source, especially coal burning power plants.
The Politic: So I have to ask, you went to school for horseshoeing — farrier school. Why? What drew you to that? You spent seven years shoeing horses on a racetrack; what made that experience enjoyable for you?
Well the times back then, it was very much encouraged to look at alternative ways of making a living, different people going to the Peace Corps and doing different things back then in the early seventies. I enjoyed working construction and wanted to get a trade, and knew something about horses and was very lucky that I was good at horseshoeing, and I stayed and stayed and stayed. It was good money, and just a terrific experience in my life to be on the racetrack seven days a week. It made me a good living shoeing horses. I had a good teacher, and I was good at it.
The Politic: In the early 2000s, you made remarks supporting a school voucher system. What are your thoughts on vouchers these days, and how do you propose making education accessible to everyone regardless of geographic location or income level?
I’m baffled by the people that want to undo our public school system. America is the greatest country in the world because of our educational system. It can obviously always be improved, but it’s responsible for the tremendous success that the United States of America has had over the centuries, and I’m reluctant to change something that works. I did vote against vouchers, and as governor I was very reluctant to support charter schools. Let’s invest in our public schools and not get diverted from the task at hand. The challenges that we have in our public school system are definitely there, so let’s focus on them and put the resources into our public school system. It’s why America is the greatest country in the world. We have to be very careful about changing that.