Politics & Policy

Chafee’s Choices

He's begging to be dumped.

If there was ever any doubt, Sen. Lincoln Chafee’s vote Wednesday against the nomination of Priscilla Owen has made it clear that, save for leadership numbers games, conservatives would not be any worse off with a Democrat than with Chafee (R., R.I.) in the Senate. Rhode Island Republicans will have a chance next year to avert that painful choice only if a serious primary challenger emerges–and it could happen as soon as next week.

#ad#Getting Priscilla Owen onto the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is a good thing, but all along the entire judicial battle has really been about the Supreme Court. Especially for the “values voters” who elected George W. Bush and the Republican Congress, this is the most important issue, as they see court after court impose its whim on American voters on issues such as homosexual marriage and abortion.

This is precisely where Chafee found Owen unacceptable. On Wednesday, Chafee’s office confirmed that it was Owen’s dissent in a 2000 parental-notification case that pushed Chafee to vote against her. In that Texas supreme-court case, the four-judge majority effectively nullified the state’s parental-notification requirement for minors seeking abortions.

The Texas law required only that minors notify their parents–not even obtain consent–before procuring an abortion. The law also provided for a judicial bypass, allowing a judge to waive the notification requirement if the minor could show she was “mature and sufficiently well informed.”

But in a dizzying opinion, the majority placed the burden of proof on the judge who would deny the bypass, requiring he prove the child was not “mature and sufficiently well informed.” The majority also said it would be out of line for a judge or the state supreme court to set any standard for the meaning of those words. In effect, they made the judicial bypass nearly automatic for any minor who sought it.

Priscilla Owen objected to this, and that made her unfit for the federal bench in the eyes of Lincoln Chafee.

If this is Chafee’s litmus test on appellate judges, what will be his test on Supreme Court nominees? It’s not just that Chafee has gone on the record repeatedly voting that Roe v. Wade was rightly decided and ought not be overturned. If Chafee’s litmus test won’t even abide parental notification, having him in the Senate undermines Bush’s stated goal of appointing justices like Scalia and Thomas. If Bush means what he says about the courts–if this hasn’t all been a show to mollify the religious Right–he’ll throw Chafee overboard.

As Chafee looks forward to his November 2006 reelection campaign, Rhode Island Republicans are baffled by the sloppiness of his political operation–a fact that the fundraising numbers bear out entirely. Chafee’s first-quarter figures were an absolute embarrassment for a sitting senator, even though they cover a time period when he expected the extremely popular Democrat Rep. James Langevin to challenge him. Chafee netted a pitiful $139,000, whereas both of his potential Democratic opponents raised more than twice as much by the end of March and are rapidly closing in on his $750,000 war chest.

A February 18 fundraiser for Chafee by Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) was disappointing in its sparse turnout, according to attendees. But even worse than the turnout was the campaign pitch his supporters were making at the event–the strained argument that Rhode Island cannot afford to send a congressional delegation composed entirely of Democrats to Washington. (Note to Chafee: It’s worked pretty well for North Dakota.)

Neither Republicans nor Democrats appreciated Chafee’s antics regarding his own vote in the 2004 presidential election. After much public consideration, he decided to write in President Bush’s father on the ballot rather than vote for Bush himself. In doing so, he was effectively betting on a Kerry victory. His occasional public flirtations with the idea of a party switch have not made him look like much of a leader, either.

Will President Bush forget about this public betrayal?

If he chooses to run (and our sources say he will), moderate Cranston mayor Stephen Laffey (R) will be an easy choice for conservatives over Chafee in next year’s September primary. The popular two-term mayor of a thoroughly Democratic town, Laffey remains cagey about his intentions for next year. But his ambition is legendary to those who know him (smaller only than his ego) and he has to date resisted pleas from the White House, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman to swear off the race.

As one wag told us of Laffey’s plans to enter the race, “I’m pretty sure he’s waiting until he can be the only thing in the newspaper.”

In some ways the conservative label does not fit Laffey well. Although he says he is pro-life, he recently described Sen. Hillary Clinton’s attempt to position herself on the middle ground on abortion as “reasonable.” But even in this, Laffey is substantially more conservative than Chafee, and he may actually have a better chance in the general election to keep the seat in GOP hands.

At the very least, the White House cannot afford to send the wrong message and reward Chafee’s serial disloyalty.

Majority Leader Bill Frist and President Bush have recently indicated they are serious about getting conservative justices on the bench, and especially on the Supreme Court. If they mean it, they won’t lift a finger for Chafee.

David Freddoso is a reporter for the Evans-Novak Political Report. Tim Carney is a Phillips Fellow and a freelance journalist.

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