Tuesday night’s showdown of prospective Democratic nominees for president provided all of the clarity and revelation that one could reasonably expect from an inaugural debate taking place 4 months prior to the opening of primary season. As she was expected to do, Hillary Clinton gave a very polished, if substantively sparse, performance, showing a level of poise and rhetorical skill befitting a Democratic frontrunner. Likewise, Bernie Sanders gave an impressive showing, doing much of the yeoman’s work when it came to outlining the economic ambitions of the Democratic Party base and harping on his pet issues, while displaying competence regarding foreign affairs. Martin O’Malley, the oft forgotten dark horse candidate in the field, also did a decent job, touting his record on energy and serviceably dancing around his contentious tenure as Baltimore’s mayor. Even former Senator Jim Webb got in on the action, with the Marine sharing a genuinely memorable exchange with his friend Bernie Sanders (who knew?) over the latter’s status as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.
And, perhaps most importantly, there was a bare minimum of infighting from all of the Democratic candidates, who seemed unified in their determination to present a more civil, united front than their Republican counterparts. Arguably the most quoted line of the night came out of this sense of civility from Senator Sanders, who said that, “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about [Clinton’s] damn emails.” All in all, it was a pretty good night to be a Democrat…unless your name is Lincoln Chafee.
Before tonight it would be safe to assume, given his abysmal 0.6% polling average nationally, that the majority of viewers of tonight’s debate didn’t know who Lincoln Chafee was. Outside of his immediate family, it’s difficult to imagine many people clamoring for Lincoln Chafee to run for president, but 0.6% ain’t nothing and he has been able to raise $392,000 for his campaign, which may look sad compared to Clinton’s $75 million in support, but looks even sadder when you find out that more than $364,000 of that came in the form of a loan…from Lincoln Chafee.
If he had any chance of gaining a head of steam and beginning to climb in the polls, Chafee needed to provide a virtuoso performance on Tuesday night, utilizing what little time he was given to play up his ability to bridge the bipartisan divide and provide effective governance through nuanced, yet pragmatic policies that represented the desires of ordinary Americans. That didn’t happen. If people remember Lincoln Chafee as a part of the 2016 presidential race, they will do so as that sad, confused man in the corner who couldn’t remember what he voted for in Congress and looked suspiciously like the grandpa on the Munsters.
The tone for the night was set during the introductory remarks when Chafee, with an ebullience disproportionate to the measure of his accomplishment, proudly told the crowd that his biggest achievement in politics was never being embroiled in a scandal. Now—never mind the fact that Chafee did have a minor scandal when it was revealed that he used taxpayer money to buy some pet frogs when he was mayor of Warwick, Rhode Island—how depressing is it that a candidate for the Presidency of The United States lists not having done something as his biggest accomplishment? But, apparently Chafee, who referred to himself as “a block of granite” when it came to his principles and morals, thought that the ethical clout bestowed upon someone who has managed to hold public office without getting caught accepting bribes or getting extramarital blow jobs deserved to be the cornerstone of his appeal to American voters.
Not satisfied with the un-presidential nature of his opening statement, Chafee went on to obliterate any chance of moving up in the polls, at one point justifying his vote to repeal Glass-Steagall by claiming he was new to the Senate and his father had just died, essentially saying that he didn’t know what he was voting for. Later on, when pressed by debate moderator Anderson Cooper on his vote to authorize The Patriot Act in 2001, Chafee gave the habitually unconvincing “but everyone else was doing it” defense, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the one senator to vote against the act, Bernie Sanders, was about 15 meters away from him.
If those in Lincoln Chafee’s inner circle truly care about him, they will urge him to withdraw from the race before the next Democratic debate in November. Watching him attempt to justify his past actions and articulate a coherent vision for the future of the country was painful in the same way it’s painful to watch a 15-year old struggle through the notes to Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door at a high school talent show. Should no one in the Chafee camp convince their principal that his campaign is a fool’s errand, the Democratic National Committee should play the part of the corner man and throw in the towel for him. As much as I enjoyed the unintentionally comedic performance put on by Chafee on Tuesday night, it is not something that should be replicated.
This inaugural Democratic debate may have been short on definitive answers, but it did give us at least one. And that is that Lincoln Chafee has no business being in this presidential race.