Chafee & Laffey: Has Either Passed the Political Greatness Test?

I had a chance today to re-read the latest developments in the Chafee-Laffey race as highlighted in the recent Anchor Rising postings on the Senate race, including the numerous comments posted by many readers.
After that effort, my overall reaction is a simple one: I will be glad when this race is over because I have found it to be a largely uninspiring campaign by both candidates and by many of their supporters. You can throw Sheldon Whitehouse into that same brew, too.
These two postings from nearly a year ago in 2005 still summarize my general thoughts on the race:
Reflections on Chafee, Laffey, Party Politics & the Future of Rhode Island
Is Laffey vs. Chafee Really a Battle Between Visionary Principles & a Reactionary Establishment? Unfortunately Not.
Some will likely say that the two postings contain more overt criticisms of Mayor Laffey than of Senator Chafee. I think they do. To a large degree, that is a reflection of my disappointment in several of the Mayor’s policy positions as well as some of my lingering concerns about whether he picked the right race to run in and whether he can keep his ego under control.
However, the relative balance of my comments is mostly a reflection of what I perceive to be a near-total lack of substance in Senator Chafee. That perception leads me to dismiss him as simply not a serious leader, with no further comments being warranted.
Overall, this third posting expresses some further thoughts on why I have found this whole campaign so unsatisfying:
Raising the Bar: Expecting Greatness From Our Political Leaders, which includes these words by Steven Hayward:

What is greatness, especially political greatness? In three thousand years we have not surpassed the understanding of Aristotle, who summed up political greatness as the ability to translate wisdom into action on behalf of the public good. To be able to do this, Aristotle argued, requires a combination of moral virtue, practical wisdom, and public-spiritedness…One must know not only what is good for oneself but also what is good for others. It is not enough merely to be wise or intelligent in the ordinary IQ-score sense; in fact, Aristotle goes to great lengths to show that practical wisdom “is at the opposite pole from intelligence.” One must have moral virtue, judgment, and public spirit in a fine balance, and these traits must be equally matched to the particular circumstances of time and place…
Greatness, especially political greatness, carries a whiff of political incorrectness…
In place of greatness, today we have mere celebrity, best exemplified by…People magazine…
Greatness is ultimately a question of character. Good character does not change with the times: it has eternal qualities. Aristotle connects the honor that accrues to the magnanimous person with the virtues of friendship. This suggests that it is always within our grasp to cultivate the virtue of greatness as individuals, even if circumstances – crises – do not call forth the need for political greatness on the highest level…
The tides of history and the scale of modern life have not made obsolete or incommensurate the kind of large-souled greatness we associate with Churchill or Lincoln or George Washington…yet the cases of Churchill and Reagan offer powerful refutation to the historicist premise that humans and human society are mostly corks bobbing on the waves of history…Why were Churchill and Reagan virtually alone among their contemporaries in their particular insights and resolves? The answer must be that they transcended their environments and transformed their circumstances as only great men can do, and thereby bent history to their will..
Can there be another Churchill, or another Reagan? The answer is plainly yes, though we must note that the greatness of statesmen is seldom recognized in their own time. Typically we only recognize greatness in hindsight…
Leo Strauss took the death of Churchill in 1965 as the occasion to remind his students that “we have no higher duty, and no more pressing duty, than to remind ourselves and our students, of political greatness, of human greatness, of the peaks of human excellence. For we are supposed to train ourselves and others in seeing things as they are, and this means above all in seeing their greatness and their misery, their excellence and their vileness, their nobility and their triumphs, and therefore never to mistake mediocrity, however brilliant, for true greatness.”
Contemplating on the example of Churchill and his influence on Reagan gives us confidence that even though the mountaintops may be often shrouded in fog, we can still tell the difference between peaks and valleys.

In response to Mr. Mahn’s comment below: The validity or lack of validity of my thoughts in this posting will be unaffected by whether turnout is high or low in the September 12 primary.
Rather, let me now offer a more granular explanation of why I am so disappointed in how this Senate campaign has played out.
To paraphrase the late Richard Weaver, I believe ideas have consequences and that means my views on this race are influenced primarily by the major ideas expressed by each candidate. More specifically, I have looked to see which candidate has articulated policies most closely aligned with my personal preference for ideas of a conservative persuasion.
My issues with Chafee are:
I cannot respect a politician who vacillates and equivocates. His thoroughly bizarre vote in the 2004 Presidential election and delay in taking a position on Judge Alito until after the vote outcome was determined are two examples of such behavior.
I find the alliance between the NRSC and Chafee to be symptomatic of the problem with Washington politics today – retaining power is more important than standing for anything. It says something about Chafee that he is willing to take money and support from the very party he so often disses.
I also cannot respect a politician who says seriously dangerous things such as “a bad peace is better than a good war” when we are engaged in a prolonged war with Islamofascists committed to the destruction of our country and Western Civilization.
I also cannot support a politician whose policy preferences are so liberal.
I am particularly repulsed by Chafee’s positioning of his PAYGO budget philosophy as fiscally responsible when it is nothing more than a back-door way to increase government spending and taxes. PAYGO willfully ignores 25 years of supply-side economic policy empirical data which have shown the policy problem in Washington is over-spending, not a lack of revenue. To say otherwise is intellectually dishonest. No less important, PAYGO’s formula for ongoing tax increases will result in slower economic growth that reduces the opportunities for people to live the American Dream. That is unjust to our fellow citizens.
Additionally, Chafee’s energy policy proposals are nothing short of unimaginative and completely avoid addressing how to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. He has rejected school choice when Laffey proposed it and Chafee’s approach to the failing educational status quo is to throw more money at it without demanding any changes or accountability. His policy view on a recent drug reimportation bill shows no courage either.
It is for all of these reasons that I consider Chafee to be devoid of gravitas and therefore incapable of political greatness. By way of contrast, Chafee’s father had gravitas and was someone you could respect even when disagreeing with some of his more liberal policy preferences. Bluntly speaking, I doubt Lincoln Chafee would be a viable Senate candidate if he was not living off the legacy of his father, John Chafee.
Alternatively, I have endorsed Laffey’s challenges to the political status quo going as far back as December 2004. It was those challenges which made me consider him capable of political greatness, with the caveat about his ego expressed in this earlier posting.
My previous writings on Anchor Rising generally agree with a number of Laffey’s policy positions on matters such as health savings accounts, school choice, pork/corporate welfare/government spending, taxation, and judicial nominees.
Here’s the rub: The Laffey Plan consists of four major policy proposals and I have serious problems with two of them – energy independence and the cost of drugs.
His energy policy proposal is as shallow as Chafee’s as it only proposes higher CAFE standards as well as tax credits for electrical hybrids and renewable power producers and consumers. The difference is that Chafee never suggested he was proposing a broader solution leading to energy independence.
Unfortunately, Laffey set higher voter expectations by saying he was touting a means to energy independence but then put forth a proposal devoid of courageous leadership because he dodged taking any stands on the tough and often unpopular policy questions that must be addressed for the United States to become energy independent. I held Laffey to the higher standard he encouraged and he failed to measure up on this important policy proposal.
More significantly, I found his policy preferences about the cost of drugs to be dangerously ill-informed and far more in agreement with Senator Kennedy’s left-wing politics than with generally conservative beliefs based on free markets.
Laffey didn’t just express platitudes about the high price of drugs like nearly every politician tends to do. Rather, among other things, he endorsed the dangerous idea of importing drugs from Canada – which is a back-door way the Left is using to socialize medicine in this country via de facto price controls. Government-driven price controls would destroy new drug innovation, just like it has in Europe. Plus, given that the Canadian market size is 5% of the United States market, importing from there is not a practical solution – which means anyone proposing the idea has to be ignorant or cynically pandering for votes.
Simultaneously, Laffey effectively lowered the quality of the public debate on healthcare by choosing to remain silent on several important and related issues: First, most people do not know that drugs are “only” 11% of total healthcare spending. If the concern is about increasing healthcare costs, why does the other 89% get no attention? Furthermore, while not perfectly separated, most people do not know that the 11% is comprised of 7% for branded drugs sold by traditional pharmaceutical companies and 4% for generic drugs sold by generic drug companies. Stripping out every last dollar of profit by traditional pharmaceutical companies would reduce healthcare costs by 1% – and ensure much higher costs in the future when there were no forthcoming new drugs. Second, while sometimes costly in their own right, drugs often have a positive cost impact by reducing overall healthcare system expenses. In other words, more drug use can eliminate costly surgeries or reduce hospital stays. Third, drugs can extend lives or improve the quality-of-life of the patient.
Comments in his policy proposal about direct-to-consumer advertising and me-too drugs also showed a thorough lack of understanding of the industry, too.
I have spent 23 years working in the healthcare industry; more on my thoughts about these drug industry issues can be found here.
I was alarmed that his healthcare policy proposal listed such information sources as Marcia Angell and Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen. It is a matter of public record that Angell has endorsed a single-payer national health insurance system, like Canada, while working with fellow advocates like David Himmelstein (whom I met when I chaired a 1993 national conference and hosted a healthcare public policy panel with him and Stuart Butler from the Heritage Foundation).
You can read the drug industry’s response to Angell’s book here.
If Laffey is truly conservative, what is he doing endorsing policy ideas backed by overt advocates of socialized medicine? That goes beyond taking a populist stance. In addition to the philosophical issues here, there is also a practical implication to advocating this policy: Socialized medicine delivers lower quality healthcare to citizens.
I cannot reconcile the underlying philosophical incongruence between these various policy preferences without concluding that Laffey either is not truly conservative in his beliefs or he is playing dishonest/opportunistic political games. Neither is an attractive conclusion to reach.
I expected more from him than Chafee and I think Laffey missed an opportunity to show real leadership on some tough issues – leadership that could lead to political greatness over time. And that begs the question whether he wants to win more than he wants to show the gravitas necessary to lead an informed public debate.
I would encourage you to return to Hayward’s words earlier in this posting about political greatness and ask yourself if the candidates have held themselves to a high enough standard of excellence. Have we held them to that high standard as well? Have our own comments to others fostered achieving that same standard of excellence, too?

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Joe Mahn
Joe Mahn
17 years ago

Mr. Hawthorne:
I guess you are putting yourself under the magnifying glass.
If the Laffey Chafee race draws more voters into a RI Primary battle than ever, then your political pundit quotient goes down (the tubes).
A lower than normal turnout and I guess the rest of the voting public is in your camp and you are a genius.
Personally I think you are all wet.
J Mahn

17 years ago

Quite frankly, I am a bit puzzled by your intent on this topic. While I realize that you may not agree with either candidate on every issue (do we ever?) I think this topic is more self-serving on your part, allowing you to vent your disagreements on certain policy positions. What is puzzling is that you can post on any topic you want, yet the title strikes me as a bit disingenuous, because I believe most reasonable people know that when you look at the two candidate’s opportunities to have “achieved greatness”, one candidate, Chafee, has had 14 years in public office to have done so – and clearly hasn’t; the other, Laffey, not in office for 4 years, has arguably achieved great things in what he has accomplished in Cranston, and also in all of Rhode Island for calling attention to, and taking on, some of the major problems afflicting municipalities statewide.
The turnaround in Cranston is nothing short of remarkable, and the Wall Street rating agencies can vouch for that.
Perhaps, by your definition, neither Laffey nor Chafee have achieved greatness; but let’s be clear, one certainly hasn’t and won’t; the other has tremendous potential.

17 years ago

I admit I came of age as a New Yorker when “liberal” Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller (and John Chafee) were the “establishment” and that has shaped my view to this day. When I was growing up, the establishment did tax itself up to 70% and more, while politicians such as Rockefeller built up the state university, helped create national parks, sponsored family planning initiatives, oversaw a system where working people were getting health care and retirement benefits, and working class kids like me were able to go to college with almost no tuition. The country boomed and many of us reached the comfortable middle class. Now it seems, the elite form groups like the Club for Growth (the group putting up Laffey) that seem to have no sense of community responsibility and care only about reducing their already reduced taxes. They don’t seem to care that public colleges are hurting and tuition is skyrocketing, that national parks are underfunded and deteriorating, that the income gap is growing and workers are losing benfits, health care, retirement, they would just as soon destroy family planning programs. But moderate Republican Senators, such as Senator Chafee, have gotten in the way of their agenda. Senator Chafee has helped block them from allowing utlities and refineries to avoid cleanup of emissions, ending inheritance taxes, destroying reproductive freedom and so on. So they are after him, they want to send a message and it seems they don’t care if the Republicans lose the seat. I share some of Mr Hawthorne’s concerns about teh negative Senate campaign, but I feel he is completely unfair to Senator Lincoln Chafee who I think is one of the most principled politicians in the country, generally trying to do the right thing for the state and country even if it doesn’t… Read more »

Joe Mahn
Joe Mahn
17 years ago

“Now it seems, the elite form groups like the Club for Growth…”
What the heck is an “elite form group?”
Just one other point on your post; Mr. Chafee’s pace in the Alito vote made his position irrelevant not virtuous. Let me spell it for you, I R R E L E V A N T. A virtuous vote would have been made much earlier in the debate when it would have meant something more that what your mention of it is, i.e., a “politically popular sound bite.”
Did you hear Chafee’s explanation today on This Week with George Stephanopoulos? He was embarrassingly incoherent on his stance on the death penalty for Osama bin Laden. No logic or discernment on a case by case issue. Then he said he might change his mind.
I predict right now that Laffey crushes Chafee in a landslide. As far as the US Senate goes Chafee is bad for RI and bad for America.
J Mahn

17 years ago

Barry is using the word “form” as a verb.
Assuming Laffey wins the primary (and that likelihood is growing from where I sit), he will be QUITE vulnerable on the hypocrisy issue. We know the NRSC, Karl Rove and other “establishment” Republicans that Laffey has attacked in the primary campaign will all be lining up behind him. Does anybody really think Laffey will tell these “special interests” to go pound tar?
Republicans can only win in Rhode Island when the party is united. I don’t expect to hear “Kumbaya” emanating from the GOP camp on Sept. 13, no matter who wins.
And the Chafee-Laffey steel cage match will resume in four years, for governor.

17 years ago

Bin Laden does not deserve the death penalty – especially with the virgin benefit package he’ll earn upon his demise.
No. I see a gender reassignment surgery and a job at the DMV in his future. He has one hell of a debt to repay to the American people, so he’d better put his little berka on and get to work.

17 years ago

Actually, for what it is worth speculating about what would happen after the primary, I think the Republican establishment will keep an arms length from Laffey, but they will do so for a reason other than the fact that they had lined up with his defeated opponent. They’ll do it to give Laffey some room to defeat Whitehouse.
They’ll proobably attempt to align with Laffey after he goes on to win the general election. IMHO.

17 years ago

Let’s face it: Laffey felt he had to jump into this race and bring down Chafee because he believed Chafee was being disloyal to his president and his party leadership. Now, he tries to claim Chafee is the one hopelessly tied to the GOP leadership and the White House.
The Chafee message should’ve been: “Can’t have it both ways, Steve.” If the Democrats have reasonably competent people managing their campaign (not a sure thing given Whitehouse’s campaign history), they can hang Laffey with it.

Donald B. Hawthorne
Donald B. Hawthorne
17 years ago

One of the reasons I wrote this posting is because I have found there to be a dearth of discussion in the Comments section about the relative merits of key policy alternatives.
I would find that to be far more interesting and meaningful than much of the “my guy is going to beat your guy” versus “nope, my guy is going to beat your guy” talk that frequently is written about.
For example:
What is the best way to achieve energy independence for America?
What is the best way to deliver and pay for healthcare services?
Does PAYGO really lead to lesser deficits or more spending?
Do we accept the supply side economic data as valid?
What will we do to help children stuck in failing schools?
Which candidate(s) have put forth meaningful proposals on these important issues?

17 years ago

The only thing that keeps me from betting my house on Whitehouse is his somewhat deficient campaign skills – stranger things than a Laffey win in November have happened in politics.
But those who win primaries by scorching the earth usually die by it. If Laffey feels he has to destroy the Rhode Island GOP to save it, well, even the Messiah complex can only take one so far.

Joe Mahn
Joe Mahn
17 years ago

Laffey didn’t scorch the earth, Chafee and the NRSC did.
When Laffey wins on the 12th he heads right out on the 13th with the amplification of the same message and plan that won him the Primary.
I am sure there will be some new surprises and points made regarding the abysmal democrat candidate Casablanca. This guy is even more of left wing whacko than Chafee is.
The RI GOP is a whimper and cough away from non-existence (or at least terminal irrelevance) anyway. In Laffey it would have a leader who can help wrest back control here at home and help rebuild the party of Reagan here in RI.
Do you see the light yet?
J Mahn

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