Lincoln Chafee is cleaning out the Senate office he has occupied since 1999, when he was appointed to complete the term of his late father. The last of what he refers to as the "traditional Republicans," the Rhode Island senator was guided by something rare in our politics: a conscience.
He was the only Republican senator to oppose authorizing President Bush to take the country to war in Iraq, he has been the only Republican senator to vote in favor of measures endorsing the setting of a timeline for withdrawal from that quagmire, he was the was the only Republican senator to vote in favor of reinstating the top federal tax rate of 39.6 percent on the richest Americans, he was the only Republican senator to speak up for gay marriage rights. And, of course, he was the only Republican senator to announce that he was not voting for the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004.
Yet, when all was said and done, the fact that he was a Republican proved to be too much of a burden for Rhode Island voters to bear. Rhode Islanders liked the Chafee family and their old-school New England Republicanism, but they could not take responsibility for handing control of the Senate to the president's party. And, by defeating Chafee, they gave the chamber to the Democrats.
But Chafee has remained the conscience of the Republican-controlled Senate to the last.
His final contribution to the Republic came in his decision to deny Republicans on the Senate's Foreign Relations committee the final vote that was needed to send the name of United Nations ambassador John Bolton – who has served by virtue of a presidential "recess appointment" -- to the full Senate for confirmation. Bolton, a brutish extremist known for his disdain of the UN in particular and international cooperation in general, might have gained Senate confirmation had it not been for Chafee's stubborn refusal to cast what could well have been his last Senate vote for the nominee of a Republican president.
Had he wanted an ambassadorship or some other favor from the White House, the soon-to-be unemployed Chafee would almost certainly have secured it by backing Bolton. With that backing, a united Republican caucus might have been able to bluster and bargain its way to a confirmation for the man who has come to symbolize the Bush administration's rejection of diplomacy.
Instead, Chafee recognized that he had a duty to respect the will of the American people, as expressed in the results of the November election. "The American people have spoken out against the president's agenda on a number of fronts," the senator explained, "and presumably one of those is on foreign policy."
On Monday, when Bolton announced that he was resigning his post and giving up his quest for Senate confirmation, Chafee's work was done.
Bush responded bitterly to the resignation, blaming "a handful of United States Senators who prevented Ambassador Bolton from receiving the up or down vote he deserved in the Senate."
"They chose to obstruct his confirmation, even though he enjoys majority support in the Senate, and even though their tactics will disrupt our diplomatic work at a sensitive and important time," Bush said. "This stubborn obstructionism ill serves our country."
In fact, it was the honorable service of one conscientious senator who chose his duty to his country over partisanship that played a pivotal role in blocking Bolton. That senator understood that, while Bolton might have enjoyed majority support in the Republican Senate of 2006 he would not have majority support in the Democratic Senate of 2007. And this rare Republican senator chose to respond to the mandate of the American people rather than the cajoling of a lame-duck Republican president.
Copyright © 2006 The Nation