Lincoln Chafee is the George Pataki of the Democratic Party

Lincoln Chafee officially re-announced his candidacy for president yesterday in front of what can only be described as the opposite of a crowd in a lecture hall at George Mason University. The former senator and governor of Rhode Island has technically been a candidate since mid-April, when he accidentally said the magic words “I’m running” on CNN.

And the political press — to say nothing of the American public — cared about as much yesterday as they did the first time he announced, which is to say not at all:

Chafee’s announcement speech included a few original (as in, not mentioned by Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders) appeals to the left in an attempt to draw distinctions between himself and his opponents — allowing Edward Snowden to return to the United States, ending the military’s ban on transgender soldiers and switching to the metric system — but there weren’t many takers. Well, aside from a few snarky jokes at Chafee’s expense for making the metric system a campaign issue:

To be clear, the jokes aren’t at the expense of the metric system, which remains the undisputed champion of measurement. They’re at the expense of Lincoln Chafee, who has no chance of ever becoming president. Like, at all. He has never run in a Democratic primary election of any kind, as his time as a politician was largely being spent as a Republican, then as an independent. His sole opening to Hillary Clinton’s left — the Iraq War — is no longer at the forefront of Democratic primary voters’ minds. And even if it were, they’d have a far more credible anti-Iraq War candidate in Bernie Sanders, who has a modicum of momentum and a clear lock on the ideological space on Hillary Clinton’s left flank.

This means that the most apt political analogy for Chafee is not Barack Obama, who came out of nowhere to defeat Hillary Clinton by exploiting her vote in favor of the Iraq War, but rather George Pataki, who is running a nearly identical “because I’m bored” presidential campaign on the Republican side despite being the least conservative Republican FiveThirtyEight has bothered to measure.

The parallels are striking:

No one knows who they are

I’m 24 years old and, despite spending plenty of time watching the evening news as a kid, I cannot remember a time in which George Pataki was at all relevant. I know that he was governor of New York at some point because other people said so, and I believe them because he sort of looks like he could be from New York (I looked it up; he’s been out of politics altogether since 2006, when I was 15 years old). Similarly, Lincoln Chafee has spent a grand total of eight years in national politics, as a Senator from 1999 to 2007. Before that, he was the mayor of a city with a population of less than 100,000 people; after that, he was the governor of our nation’s smallest state as measured by land mass.

Which one is which???

Which one is Chafee???

In other words, no one knows who either of these people are. No one was clamoring for them to enter the race, and no one is excited now that they have. They are D-list figures at best, with no base of support and who even the most avid observers only vaguely remember — the political equivalent of Rob Schneider and Randy Quaid. If you were to put a picture of Lincoln Chafee next to a picture of George Pataki and asked people who was who, 90 percent of Americans would flip a coin to make their pick. Not because they didn’t know the difference (they wouldn’t), but because giving the question much more thought than that would be a waste of their time.

No one cares that they’re running

According to data released by Facebook, George Pataki’s campaign announcement has generated the least amount of social media activity of any candidate so far, with only 59,000 people mentioning or interacting with the launch in any meaningful way. Lincoln Chafee’s announcement is likely to limbo-walk right under that low bar.

The only people paying attention to these candidates are the political journalists, who are either a) obligated to cover them because, hey, someone who used to hold public office is officially running for president; or b) like me, genuinely amused and/or confused by their candidacies.

In other words, while both of these candidates are running for the sole purpose of raising their national profile and reminding everyone that they exist, they may not even be able to squeeze that out of their presidential bids.

No one knows why they’re running

George Pataki is a pro-choice, pro-marriage equality candidate with a less-than-godawful environmental record. In other words, he isn’t a Republican in any meaningful sense of the word. Lincoln Chafee, by contrast, is an actual former Republican who opposed the Bush tax cuts not because they exacerbated economic inequality, but because he was worried they would get in the way of making deep spending cuts to social programs.

In short, Pataki and Chafee are both candidates whose positions were last seen as politically viable at the national level around the year 2000. It’s no coincidence that both of them peaked around that time. Going on 16 years later, however, they’re both “old school” in all the wrong ways, like the dad who really wants to get on Facebook but lost his password and doesn’t know how to recover it.

Speaking of which…

chafee facebook

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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11 Responses to “Lincoln Chafee is the George Pataki of the Democratic Party”

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  3. The_Fixer says:

    I saw a portion of Chaffee’s announcement speech on The Daily Show. The man has all the charisma of that pile of wood I have out in the garage.

    No matter how many good ideas he may have (Metric system?), nobody will ever get to hear about them because he puts people to sleep before he can hear them.

    Maybe that’s his secret weapon – he’ll just drone on long enough for ISIS to all fall asleep and then – BAM! That’s when we’ll get them.

  4. Doug105 says:

    Money, never mind what their toxic views may do to the campaign, its all about the book deals and paid speechs.

    Ben Carson Is Raking In Millions

  5. Naja pallida says:

    That’s an awful long post for what is ultimately nothing but a big snore from the voting public.

  6. leliorisen says:

    The little I know about Lincoln Chafee gives me reason to not seriously consider him as a choice, especially in a primary that features Bernie Sanders.

    Having said that, your belittling his candidacy because “no one knows who they are” and “no one cares that they’re running” is a bit arrogant and obnoxious.

    Maybe by the time you reach 25, you’ll realize that comments like that are a reflection of a mindset that thinks the field should only be open to someone who has a certain degree of media celebrity. It’s bad enough that the Beltway behaves like that and that to win elections you now have to be substantially bankrolled and be given star status.

    If you want to strictly discredit him based on how you regard his policy positions, fine. I don’t like them either. But your suggesting he has no business running at all is absurd. What is he, the 4th candidate in the field? At least there is more potential for dialogue and debate, so that we have more opportunities to hear the other candidates articulate a stance on various issues.

  7. UncleBucky says:

    Will either of these doppelgangers even have a reasonable state by state campaign structure?

  8. BeccaM says:

    I’m decidedly older, Jon, with recollections of politicians going back to the Johnson era. I even remember a few years after that, watching Nixon’s resignation speech live on TV.

    Pataki’s relevance is that he was one of the last major GOP figures who could be considered to have mainstream policies and to be a moderate Republican. He adopted many Democratic positions as his own, including being pro-choice on reproductive rights and pro-gay rights. He had to do this, else never have a chance of being NY governor from ’95 to ’07.

    He’s purely a vanity candidate, because a Republican cannot possibly win his party’s nomination with these dogma-heresy strikes — and many more — against him. In his time, he could have done just fine as a Blue Dog Democrat because although progressive on social and environmental issues, he nevertheless was big on cutting taxes (without the means of paying for them), favored charter schools and school budget cuts, and tried to foster a ‘tough on crime’ image. Although in 2010, Pataki created a lobbying group to try to get the ACA repealed, that group has since gone dark with almost nobody remembering he’d done this.

    As for Chafee, his political career can (by me anyway) be mostly defined as the result of opportunism, family name and dumb luck. He was just a local politician, and to be elected major of a small town in Rhode Island as a Republican, he had to basically behave as a Democrat. His father, John Chafee, was an icon in RI politics, having served as governor and then as that state’s senior senator for decades — and along with John Heinz in his day, considered to be a moderate to left-leaning Republican. (The kind no longer welcome in the party.) Lincoln was going to run for his father’s Senate seat in 2000, since John was going to retire anyway for health reasons, when John died and so RI’s GOP governor Lincoln Almond decided to try to give Lincoln a leg up on winning by making him an appointed incumbent for a year.

    It worked, but Lincoln Chafee’s politics were incompatible with what the GOP became in 2000 and in the years following. For them, he was the epitome of a RINO (Republican In Name Only), despite his being with the GOP on things like cutting social programs, privatizing Social Security, and so on. If not for his father’s name and the peculiarities of RI politics, he never would’ve ended up in the Senate anyway. Lincoln was going to be challenged from the GOPer right — and RI is a ‘closed primary’ state, spelling his inevitable doom. Even if he could win a plurality of Rhode Island voters, he’d never win a majority of Republican primary votes.

    However, after a brief hiatus, Chafee’s dumb luck continued when he ran as an independent for RI governor and won in a seven-candidate race with just 36% of the vote. It surprised no one when he switched his affiliation to Democrat in 2011…but why he thinks he’s a viable Dem candidate for the presidential nomination, I have no effin’ clue. One of the main reasons he never served a 2nd term as RI governor was because his polling numbers sucked and he couldn’t raise enough money. (In a state the size of Rhode Island, that last bit is saying a lot.)

    All I can figure is either he’s deluded (which many candidates are) or he’s just looking to be on the national stage to raise money for future political ambitions — perhaps to win that 2nd term as RI gov or perhaps to return to the Senate.

    Anyway, Jon, as you and many of us here know, very often the point isn’t to be a serious candidate or to win the nomination, but merely to appear serious enough to make a showing. The point is (1) to raise money, (2) to get your face and name out there in hopes of increasing recognition for whatever reason (for someone like Pataki or Chafee, it could very well be to try to revive a failing political career… for someone like Trump or Palin, it’s just for fame, ego-strokes, and money), and (3) to raise even more money.

  9. devlzadvocate says:

    More people showed up when I ran for president of the condo association.

  10. Indigo says:

    There’s nothing like a crowded field of candidates. Do we have one yet? Or are the Democrats just mirroring the Republicans by filling up the clown car?

  11. 2patricius2 says:

    I think it was on Chris Hayes that he was interviewed last night. Not very impressive at all.

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