It’s not often that a politician edged out in a closely fought election decides, upon reflection, that he got what he deserved. But that is what Lincoln Chafee, former Republican senator from Rhode Island, grudgingly acknowledges at the end of his unusually candid memoir, Against the Tide: How a Compliant Congress Empowered a Reckless President. As the subtitle suggests, despite his reputation as mild-mannered and friendly, Chafee, who served in the Senate from 1999 through 2006, the year a wave of anti-Bush sentiment swept away the Republican majority in Congress, has not written a feel-good, conciliatory book. He has written a searing indictment of how his fellow Republicans disgraced themselves by bowing to the Bush Administration’s extremist demands, from the perspective of a moderate who came to feel deeply estranged from the party to which he once felt loyally bound. The people who voted to unseat Republicans like him in the 2006 midterm election “did what they had to do to check the Bush-Cheney agenda,” Chafee writes. The Congress in which he served “deserves the infamy that history will surely assign it.”
The fact that Chafee feels this way is, some on the right will undoubtedly contend, hardly surprising: Chafee, they’ll tell you, was always a liberal in disguise, the Senate’s number-one RINO (Republican in Name Only), as the magazine Human Events once labeled Chafee, who had it in for the Bush Administration from day one.
It’s an accusation Chafee probably wishes were true. But reality is more complicated and sheds light on how profoundly the party has changed over the course of a generation. As Chafee confesses early in his book, in 2000 he supported George W. Bush in the Rhode Island presidential primary. What he saw in the Texas governor was a pragmatist who, like his father, George H.W. Bush, would be open to compromise and willing to disappoint the GOP base if circumstances demanded it. Chafee could not have been more wrong, of course, but the proclivity to see in the son a mirror image of the father, and to envisage him as something other than a bumbling ideologue, was somewhat understandable in light of his own background. Chafee entered the Senate after his father, John Chafee, a four-term senator, died suddenly of heart failure. The elder Chafee belonged to the once-sizable bloc of so-called Rockefeller Republicans: socially tolerant, fiscally conservative moderates who did not regard cutting taxes as a sacred mission, did not sneer at every government program they came across and did not assume anyone who disagreed with them was morally suspect.
Chafee had convinced himself that a similar spirit might prevail under the younger Bush. He quickly learned otherwise. The day after the Supreme Court handed Bush the presidency by halting the Florida recount, Chafee relates in his book, Dick Cheney dropped by for a closed-door lunch with the handful of moderate Senate Republicans. As Cheney ticked off the incoming Administration’s priorities–disavowing the Kyoto Protocol, canceling the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, ramming through a $1.6 trillion tax cut–Chafee realized that all the talk of Bush being a “uniter” had been a sham. He also realized that Republicans of his father’s ilk were no longer treated with even a modicum of respect (“Cheney was not asking for support–he was ordering us to provide it”). And they seldom stood up for themselves: instead of voicing objections to the Vice President-elect’s “shockingly divisive” agenda, his colleagues nodded obsequiously. “Mr. Cheney tore our best campaign promises to shreds and the moderates acquiesced instead of pelting him with outrage,” Chafee angrily recalls. “It was the most demoralizing moment of my seven-year tenure in the Senate.”