Lincoln Chafee could have been somebody at the Democratic debate. While he is too awkward and poorly funded to have a chance at the nomination, Chafee had the chance to be the spokesman for an almost forgotten political tradition, but he chickened out.
Chafee is an heir (literally) to the patrician, clean government, school of liberal Republicanism. Bernie Sanders’ distinct message was that American liberalism needed more socialism. Liberal Republicanism’s distinct message was that true liberalism meant treating public office as a public trust rather than a source of enrichment, and that the advance of liberalism was largely contingent on fighting corruption. Sanders-style socialism doesn’t care about was in Clinton’s damn emails as long as she signs on to the left’s ideological agenda. The clean government strain in liberal Republicanism would care a great deal because corruption in office could discredit liberal politics.
Shorn of its partisanship and class/ethnic ties, a Chafee good government liberal case against Clinton could have been both interesting and internally coherent. Hillary Clinton is about the most transactional politician imaginable – even more than Mitt Romney. Say what you will about Romney, but he didn’t make his family’s fortune by giving high-priced speeches to groups who were hoping for government favors.
Chafee could have made the case that Clinton’s bad ethics leads to bad liberalism. She didn’t support the Iraq War because she misinterpreted the evidence. She supported the war because it was popular, and she was more concerned about being on the right side of popular opinion than with being right. Clinton supported the Iraq War for the same reason that she put classified emails on an unsecure private server in order to avoid scrutiny of her work email records. She put her own selfish interest before the interests of the country and of progressivism. Her bad ethics aren’t the price liberals pay for her good politics. Her bad ethics are why she is a bad liberal.
That was the good government liberalism case Chafee could have made. Instead, Chafee muttered some nonsense about how he didn’t misinterpret the Iraq intelligence, and that Clinton’s email shenanigans would undermine American moral authority.
Chafee seems to have been intimidated by the audience in the hall. While there might (or might not) have been an audience for good government liberalism among the television viewership, there was no such audience among the people who were in the debate hall. Those partisans were going to treat any attack on Clinton’s ethics as giving aid and comfort to the enemy. And by enemy, they didn’t mean ISIS, al-Qaeda, and North Korea. They meant the Republican Party, the NRA, and Jim Webb’s family tree (bitter clinging and all that.)
But by refusing to make a forthright case for clean government liberalism, Chafee missed his chance to make an impact on the debate.