Monday, October 04, 2004

In the Senate, Raising a (Quiet) Republican Voice Against the Administration


WASHINGTON, Oct. 3 - One day after the Supreme Court sealed the 2000 election for George W. Bush, his running mate, Dick Cheney, went to the Capitol for a private lunch with five moderate Republican senators. The agenda he laid out that day in December 2000 stunned Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, sending Mr. Chafee on a painful journey of political conscience that, he said in an interview last week, has culminated with his decision not to vote for Mr. Bush in November.

"I literally was close to falling off my chair," Mr. Chafee said, recounting the vice president's proposals for steep tax cuts, missile defense programs and abandoning the Kyoto environmental accords. "It was no room for discussion. I said, 'Well, you're going to need us; it's a 50-50 Senate, you're going to need us moderates.' He said, 'Well, we need everybody.' ''

For Mr. Chafee, who was a prep school buddy of the president's brother Jeb and whose father, the late Senator John Chafee, was close to the first President Bush, that day was the beginning of an estrangement with the president, whom he had worked to elect. In the months since, he has opposed Mr. Bush on everything from tax cuts to gay marriage and the war in Iraq. Now, this life-long Republican has concluded that he cannot cast his ballot for the leader of his party.

"I'll vote Republican," he said, explaining that he would choose a write-in candidate, perhaps George Bush the elder, as a symbolic act of protest. Asked if he wanted Senator John Kerry to be president, Mr. Chafee shook his head sadly, as if to say he could not entertain the question. "I've been disloyal enough," he said.

On Capitol Hill, some regard Mr. Chafee, a soft-spoken, gentle man who once shoed horses for a living, as the Republican counterpart to Senator Zell Miller, the fiery Georgia Democrat who is campaigning for Mr. Bush. But the truth is more complex. While Mr. Miller is retiring, Mr. Chafee is planning to run again in 2006. His misgivings about his party's conservative tilt have thrust him into a powerful position in Washington, where Republicans' memories are still fresh of how another moderate, Senator James M. Jeffords of Vermont, defected in 2001 and became an independent, temporarily giving Democrats control of the Senate.

Mr. Chafee insists he has no intention of defecting. But it is no secret that Democrats would welcome him, and already, Mr. Jeffords is offering him counsel.

"I understand the feelings that he has," Mr. Jeffords said. "I'm going to be talking to him, so I'm not going to say any more. I probably shouldn't have even told you that."

At 51, Mr. Chafee, who was appointed to the Senate after his father's death in 1999 and then won handily in an election the following year, is a curious figure in Washington. Pensive and intellectual, he hardly appears suited for the bare-knuckle world of politics and seems to exist on the periphery of things, ambling about the Capitol like an absent-minded professor making a study of its power-hungry inhabitants.

Some call him quirky; others think of him as the accidental senator, a political version of the loner protagonist in the Anne Tyler novel "The Accidental Tourist."

"I don't think he marches to the same drummer as other politicians," said M. Charles Bakst, a political columnist for The Providence Journal who has followed Rhode Island politics since the 1960's, when John Chafee was governor. "When they march, one of their big drums is party, and I don't think he cares very much what this party says or what another party says."

But Mr. Chafee says he does care. In heavily Democratic Rhode Island, he has been a Republican since birth; his parents named him Lincoln after the first Republican president. He says he is waiting for the moderate wing of the party to rise again; in the meantime, he was asked if he went to bed at night wondering how he could remain a Republican.

"Yes," he said, "I don't deny that."

Born into wealth and privilege, Mr. Chafee never envisioned following his father into politics. Instead, after graduating from Brown University in 1975, he took his grandfather's advice to "get a trade." Having grown up around horses, he settled on a blacksmith school in Bozeman, Mont., and spent seven years working at harness race tracks.


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