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In 2006, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse defeated then-Republican U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee on a campaign that largely sought to tie Chafee to the unpopular policies of the George W. Bush presidency. Twelve years on, some progressive Democrats disappointed with Whitehouse’s votes on civil liberties, Pentagon spending, and U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen, among other issues, are now looking to Chafee to challenge Whitehouse in this year’s Democratic primary—from the left. Chafee, who says he is 95 percent committed to running, expects to announce his final decision later this week. On Tuesday, he and I sat down in his Warwick office for an interview on topics including the Yemen war, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, single-payer health insurance, U.S. prisons, media reform, Whitehouse’s vote as a superdelegate for Hillary Clinton despite widespread support in Rhode Island for Bernie Sanders, war spending, and Russia.
We began by discussing the recent and minor controversy over comments Chafee made about Russian President Vladimir Putin in a Providence Journal article, titled, “Chafee praises Putin’s ‘brilliant’ critique of U.S. power.” Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
NUNES: I sensed in reading the [Providence Journal] story that you were trying to make a more nuanced point about what’s going on geopolitically and with Russia. The headline seemed a little sensational.
CHAFEE: It’s hard in this day and age to have an intellectual discussion. That story, especially the headline, was a perfect example. When I said a “brilliant plea for world peace” eleven years ago, the headline [abbreviated that significantly]. I should have learned. Of all the maybe 60 speeches I gave [when I ran for president], I mentioned [changing to the] metric [system] once, and that’s all the focus was on. It’s just hard to have any kind of in-depth discussion in this climate we’re in now.
NUNES: What were you trying to convey?
CHAFEE: After the fall of the Soviet Union, we were an admired and respected country, the sole superpower. Give Bill Clinton credit, and the predecessors got us to that point. Then September 11th happened; fear and anger became the watchwords; we went into Iraq; we lied to the world; we said they had weapons of mass destruction, which they didn’t. In his speech in ’07, Putin is addressing all that, saying that a “unipolar” [superpower] world doesn’t work, which is what the neocons were advocating for: total American hegemony. And I agree that that doesn’t work.
NUNES: Prior to [Putin’s] 2007 speech, George W. Bush had pulled out unilaterally from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which undermined mutually assured destruction; NATO has encroached on Russia; during the Clinton years, the U.S. was heavily involved in Russia’s economy and politics. You talked about how you can’t have a serious conversation. Do you think it’s a problem that the American public or media, can’t even talk about these issues?
CHAFEE: It’s a huge problem. That’s why we have Donald Trump as our president. I dipped my toe into the water to run as president. On paper, I have a pretty good resume. Out of 250 Americans, there are probably five, six, seven that have been a mayor, a United States senator, and a governor. I bring the perspective from those experiences, local, federal, state. Yet all I got was shallow reporting. Never talking about the issues I wanted to bring up: banning drone strikes, no capital punishment, warrantless wire-tapping, torturing of prisoners—exercising American leadership in a more responsible way. I never got a question on any of that. Never even asked.
NUNES: Sheldon Whitehouse plays into the fact that there is a group of Democratic voters who dislike Donald Trump so much that they’ve latched onto a certain narrative about Russia. Do you fear that, if you talk about foreign affairs in a sophisticated way, he will then use that on you?
CHAFEE: I’m not so worried about Senator Whitehouse. It’s more the media, and that headline was just a perfect example of the shallowness of how we deal with complex issues. The point I really want to make about the Russia investigation is the amount of ink that it’s consuming everyday and over the airwaves, and the lack of introspection among us Democrats about what happened with the DNC [in 2016], and what happened with its superdelegate system. We ended up nominating someone who lost. We should see some introspection on that debacle. Those [parties] most responsible—the DNC and the mainstream media—are the ones driving the Russia investigation. I honestly, in my heart, don’t believe they affected the outcome of the race. Yes, they were meddling. I’m not naive about that.
NUNES: Some say why bring this up?
CHAFEE: Well, I’m mad. I’m mad that the Supreme Court is going to be influenced throughout my children’s future through this election. The investigation is in the paper everyday. I want to have more of a discussion about how the DNC and the mainstream media influenced the election more than the Russians.
NUNES: The focus on Russia and the ratcheting up of tensions between our countries doesn’t come without consequences. We have about 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads between our countries; we’re in a proxy war in Syria. We have these scenarios where you’d think people should want to bring down the tension.
CHAFEE: Right. Get back to the decades-long work of Carter and Reagan and H.W. and Clinton for nonproliferation.
NUNES: Where do you stand on the $1.2-trillion “modernization” of the nuclear arsenal?
CHAFEE: I wish we were working harder for what we made such progress on under those presidents we mentioned.
NUNES: Do you want to reduce nuclear weapons, or eliminate all of them?
CHAFEE: I like to say peace comes first, and then comes the peace dividend. If you can build better relations, we’ll get an age of lasting peace. Then you can look at what we need, and put that money into schools and bridges and other good paying jobs.
NUNES: But some people say, if the U.S. is dedicating $700-billion a year or more to the Pentagon and building nuclear weapons, those aren’t the steps you make to bring about peace. You have to rein that in first. Do you think we need to reduce our military spending before we see other countries interested in peace with the U.S.?
CHAFEE: Be smart. I wouldn’t say a wholesale reduction. But the language John Bolton used against North Korea, no wonder they feel a threat, and Bush’s “Axis of Evil” comments [about Iraq, Iran, and North Korea]. And then putting missiles in the former Soviet republics and those types of provocative actions, [as opposed to] stay strong militarily and work to an age of lasting peace.
NUNES: Sheldon Whitehouse voted against the Yemen War resolution with regards to U.S. support of the Saudi war [there]. Would you have made the same vote as him?
CHAFEE: No, no, no.
[Chafee gets up and pulls out a copy of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force he voted for after Sept. 11. It gave George W. Bush and subsequent presidents overly broad powers in waging war against the terrorists behind 9/11 and their supporters. Chafee says he faults Whitehouse for enabling the use of the AUMF today to allow U.S. involvement in Yemen.]
This is the AUMF [pictured below]. Sept. 11 happened on a Tuesday. On Thursday, we came into give the president authority to respond. So literally the smoke’s still coming out of the Pentagon and down Constitution Avenue. This is what we were handed, and then we went into vote. It had “draft” still at the top with crossed off words. This has been used ever since for all these military adventures.
NUNES: You voted for this. Do you regret that now?
CHAFEE: No, but I think we should be adamant about going back to the 1973 War Powers Acts and not being allowed to use this anymore. That’s what the Sanders, Lee, Murphy [Yemen resolution] bill was about. It wasn’t about the specifics of Yemen. That’s what Senator Whitehouse talks about, the specifics of Yemen. The resolution was about: we’re going to debate, and we’re not going to use this AUMF from 2001.
NUNES: Do you think the U.S. shouldn’t be involved in Yemen?
CHAFEE: The first action is to approve the Lee, Sanders, Murphy resolution. Then let’s debate. This all happened because we broke Iraq, and it’s going to be very hard to put [everything] back together in Yemen and Syria.
NUNES: Is that the U.S.’s job?
CHAFEE: I just believe in an international resolution. That’s why the United Nations was created.
NUNES: Some say the U.S. lacks credibility in the region, and there’s not going to be a resolution to these problems until we withdraw ourselves and let the people of these countries figure it out themselves. Other people say we need American leadership in that region. Where do you fall?
CHAFEE: There’s no doubt we lost credibility in the region because of what we did in Iraq. It’s pretty obvious. And I just believe it’s got to be an international effort.
NUNES: Does that mean the U.S. pulling back, closing bases, taking troops and contractors out, not involving itself in Syria, ending support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen? Does it mean the U.S. reducing or eliminating its footprint there?
CHAFEE: It’s all about our hegemony, and that’s still an issue in that region. And we’re still heavy-handed.
NUNES: What do you think of Donald Trump’s recent strikes in Syria and his strikes in 2017. Sheldon Whitehouse was not critical of [the justification for] the strikes that just happened, but he was critical that a more strategic plan wasn’t presented. I heard him say at a town hall earlier this year that he agreed with the 2017 strikes.
CHAFEE: Again, it’s back to the same answer. These are complicated issues that I think we’re better off approaching in an international way. I’m anti-war. It’s just who I am. My record is good. Only 23 of us voted against the Iraq War [in the Senate], and I said publicly that they would not find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So I saw through the fog and lies. So I have a good record of dealing with these crises.
NUNES: Do you have a [cut off] number on how high you’d go on Pentagon spending?
CHAFEE: No, no, no. I’m more focused on first things first.
NUNES: How are you going to distinguish yourself from Sheldon Whitehouse?
CHAFEE: My main arguments about Senator Whitehouse’s voting record are on the war authorization we’ve been talking about and also warrantless wiretapping, which is how the United States fits as a world leader. Are we going to use an old authorization to let the president go wherever he or she wants to go? Are we going to have warrantless wiretapping? Are we going to have drone strikes? Are we going to have capital punishment? I’m against drone strikes [in all circumstances]. What an example for the rest of the world. [On warrantless wiretapping] the Fourth Amendment is clear, and Senator Whitehouse voted several times to extend the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] warrantless wiretapping, most recently in January. The Fourth Amendment—the right of the people to be secure in house and paper and effects unless a warrant is issued.
NUNES: And get rid of the death penalty?
CHAFEE: Yes, join the rest of the civilized world. The company we keep with capital punishment is embarrassing. And also torture. Are we going to be a responsible world leader?
NUNES: What about [general] U.S. prisoners. Some people say solitary confinement is torture. Some people say prison conditions in the U.S. are torture. You’re putting people in cages. What do you think?
CHAFEE: Let’s start with capital punishment and end that. The message is we’re going to be a responsible world leader.
NUNES: A lot of people I know are concerned about social justice issues broadly, and a lot of those issues you don’t hear politicians speak about as much as their constituents do: single-payer healthcare, prison reform, childcare [expenses], affordable housing, police brutality against African Americans, indigenous rights of Native Americans. Are these important issues to you?
CHAFEE: Oh yeah, and I would expect that Senator Whitehouse shares [the same perspective] on those issues you just went down: Medicare For All, criminal justice reform, mandatory sentencing laws, racial inequality, indigenous rights. Those are probably areas where we agree.
NUNES: I follow [Whitehouse] on Twitter. I look at what he puts out press releases about. On paper, maybe he has more progressive opinions, but I don’t see him necessarily being very vocal on these issues. Would you be willing to say, “These issues are important, and I want to make it part of the discussion; there needs to be change here”?
CHAFEE: Oh, yes. Medicare For All certainly.
NUNES: You’re for single-payer, or are you someone who thinks there should be a public insurance option?
CHAFEE: Are they kind of the same?
NUNES: Single-payer would eliminate private insurance altogether. A public option would mean people would have an option to purchase a government plan, but there would still be private insurance. People who advocate for Medicare For All say you have to go single-payer all the way to control costs.
CHAFEE: I have to flesh out those complexities.
NUNES: Do you think we should be moving in the direction of one health insurance plan—government run, private delivery of health care—as the ultimate goal?
CHAFEE: Yes, yes. Look at what other countries are doing and what works.
NUNES: We have a massively unequal society [in the U.S.]. We have corporations that are influencing politics, exploiting loopholes, getting subsidies, using stock buybacks to inflate executive salaries. They don’t invest as much into worker pensions. CEO compensation goes up but wages stagnate [or go down] for everyone else. Does there need to be some plan that can address that?
CHAFEE: Absolutely. The middle class is getting crushed, and Congress just voted in another huge gift to the corporations and the wealthy. It’s hard to believe after the proof that the Bush tax cuts didn’t work, and the economy did crater after those tax cuts. That’s why I’m mad Donald Trump is president.
NUNES: Some people say the political class has failed Americans for decades and Donald Trump is the result of that.
CHAFEE: I wouldn’t say decades. I would say it changed under Bush and Cheney.
NUNES: You don’t think deregulation under Reagan and Clinton are included in that? The Glass Steagall [legislation that separated commercial and investment banking] was repealed under Clinton.
CHAFEE: Yes, it was signed by Clinton. But I do believe that we did at least have surpluses then, and there was fiscal discipline. For whatever criticism you might give, the reality was surpluses and a peaceful world. In early 2001, that’s when it started to unravel.
NUNES: You think these problems started in 2001. A lot of people think that 9/11 happened because of decades of U.S. foreign policy decisions, that inequality was already starting to develop. You don’t think so?
CHAFEE: No, I don’t.
NUNES: What are your feelings on the immigration debate in the United States right now?
CHAFEE: Well, go back to a good [bipartisan] bill that was in Congress when I was there, McCain-Kennedy. It was a good bill: a path to citizenship, learn English, no felons, border security. It was a good bill. That framework is still relevant.
NUNES: But I think in the U.S. there’s a fundamental disagreement that goes beyond just legislation. There’s a certain part of the U.S. population that’s anti-immigrant to the point of xenophobia and hatred. Then there are other people who, I think, rightly recognize our immigration system is unfair, arbitrary, and people are being locked up in detention indefinitely; people who deserve refugee status aren’t getting it. On those fundamental issues, where do you stand?
CHAFEE: As I said, I think that framework that McCain and Kennedy put together back then is still relevant. I do believe that. The truth is that our economy depends on an immigrant workforce. It’s a reality. So there has to be a system where we can’t have people living in the shadows.
NUNES: Some people think ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] shouldn’t exist; it should be eliminated. It wasn’t started until 2003. Just get rid of it.
CHAFEE: I think that part of the solution needs to be addressing why these people want to come here. Why are they fleeing their homes? That involves drug trade in Mexico and Central America and lack of schools and economic opportunity. And the refugees fleeing war torn countries. It’s harder for them to get here, but it’s certainly affecting other countries. That’s part of our responsibility to address the issue in totality.
NUNES: What are your thoughts on what’s gone on recently with the Israeli military firing into crowds of non-violent Palestinian protestors, killing a journalist, among others?
CHAFEE: Gaza is a tragic piece of real estate in that, the hopelessness that’s there, it’s natural to breed these kinds of conflicts. I’ve long been a supporter of a Palestinian homeland.
NUNES: Do you think what Israel is doing is condemnable?
CHAFEE: Senator [Bernie] Sanders has a letter, which I would sign, addressing it, what we could do better in that area.
NUNES: In your heart, do you think it’s condemnable?
CHAFEE: This is a sensitive part of the world. It’s certainly an area that we should be working with Israelis to address.
NUNES: What do you think of what Benjamin Netanyahu has been saying about Iran [and its nuclear program prior to the Obama era nuclear deal]? Do you think he’s credible?
CHAFEE: I have to look at what they’ve come up with, the specifics of what he’s saying. It’s coming at a time of strife along the Gaza border. I just wonder about the timing.
NUNES: Meaning you think it’s suspicious?
CHAFEE: I’d like to see the details of what he’s alleging.
NUNES: Do you have any opinion on stock buybacks?
CHAFEE: Oh boy. I’ll have to get up to speed [on that].
NUNES: A stock buyback is when a publicly traded company uses its funds to buyback its own stock on the open market. A number of people say it’s a way that corporate money is being misused and perpetuates inequality. The money is not going to employees. It’s going towards inflating the stock price. It’s not a topic you’re as familiar with?
CHAFEE: Correct. At this time. I want to be knowledgeable before I comment in detail.
NUNES: Do you have general thoughts on corporate governance and how companies are run today? A lot of people think the way companies are run today drives inequality in the U.S.
CHAFEE: Yes, it’s also shortsighted in that everybody benefits by a strong middle class. When the middle class is under assault, it’s very shortsighted.
NUNES: Do you have any policies you’d like to see implemented [with regards to this]?
CHAFEE: Well, the tax code is one area I have experience in, and I voted against every single Bush-Cheney tax cut that benefited the corporations and the wealthy. I believe in a fairer tax code.
NUNES: In this conversation you’ve said you’re disappointed with media today in America. Is there anything you would do with regard to media policy as senator?
CHAFEE: I guess that’s my whole point and probably why you’re sitting here. The mainstream media brought us Donald Trump as president—that’s essentially my view—and the DNC, because we didn’t have a fair process of picking a nominee. It was Hillary Clinton, and everyone else get out of the way. Donna Brazile said in her book Bernie Sanders didn’t have a chance. It was rigged.
NUNES: What could be done about media?
CHAFEE: I’m trying to make a point of it.
NUNES: People say you have massive media companies. The Providence Journal is owned by a company out of state. NBC 10 is now owned by Sinclair. You wouldn’t do something where you say a company like Sinclair can’t buy up all these stations; there has to be some sort of regulation that protects citizens by not allowing the media in their region to be under the direction of a corporation that disinvests in it?
CHAFEE: I don’t think we’re there yet. It’s going to be more homegrown, [something starting] online and becoming a competitor.
NUNES: A lot of people think media companies have become so bad, because government regulations have allowed these companies to become so large. You need some sort of regulation to get back from that. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed broadcast companies to buy up immense numbers of television and radio stations.
CHAFEE: I do remember that. I’ve got to refresh my memory on some of these things.
NUNES: People have said, “Chafee is going to be challenging Whitehouse from the left.” Is that true?
CHAFEE: The four issues I’m bringing up are the mainstay of my campaign. I think they’re legitimate and deserve debate, and others will probably come along. The four issues are warrantless wire tapping; the war authorization; supporting Hillary Clinton at the Philadelphia convention after cities and towns across Rhode Island said, “We want Bernie Sanders”; and the lack of opposition to the Burrillville [fracked gas] power plant. Wherever those fit on left-right, those are the issues.
NUNES: Do you think the U.S. generally and Rhode Island need new people getting into politics, a more diverse crowd: younger people, people of color, women?
CHAFEE: Of course. That’s one reason I moved from thinking about the governor’s race, because there were different faces getting interested in that race. But nobody was interested in the Senate race. The primary in blue and red states is frequently where the election is decided.
NUNES: In terms of campaign financing, are you willing to say, “I’m not going to take any money from a corporate PAC?
CHAFEE: I’m thinking about—I just got in last week—what my restrictions will be on raising money. And when I announce, or if I announce, that will be included in the announcement. I want to have some restrictions on how I take money.
Alex Nunes is an independent journalist based in Rhode Island. He has contributed reporting to NPR, Rhode Island Public Radio, The Providence Journal, and The Day of New London, Conn., among other news organizations. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a bachelor’s in sociology from Rhode Island College.
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