Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders launched his White House bid on the lakefront of the city where his political career began. Florida Senator Marco Rubio began his quest in Miami, surrounded by friends and family. If former Rhode Island Governor and Senator Lincoln Chafee takes the White House, history will record that his quest started a few metro stops away, on a college campus in Virginia—and that he mused about an American "rapprochement" with the Islamic state.
"You have to think that it's always possible," he told reporters after his speech at George Mason University. "ISIS is emerging. It's a phenomenon that's ever changing."
Chafee, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat, gave a brief and chipper address that called for America to re-engage with "international community" with diplomacy and "symbolic" moves. That meant everything from barring campaign donors from becoming diplomats, to allowing Edward Snowden to come home without punishment, to bringing America into the Metric system.
"It doesn't take long to realize that 34 degrees is hot," joked Chafee, reminiscing about some time he spent in Canada.
Reading from a small sheaf of notes, bracketed by video screens that displayed his campaign logo, Chafee told a half-full auditorium of students and journalists that he had opposed the Iraq War from the get-go. "The neocons who sold us on that war are still key advisers to presidential campaigns today," marveled Chafee, whose cheerfulness remain steady even when he dealt with dark subjects.
Chafee, who was appointed to fill the Senate seat of his late father in 1999, said that he learned to mistrust George W. Bush's administration "before 9/11." The president's campaign rhetoric did not match his agenda. Chafee remembered, painfully, how moderate New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman had been brought into the administration to direct the EPA, and how she'd argued publicly for regulating carbon. That led to a meeting between Vice President Dick Cheney and Republican senators ("when I was still a Republican"), where conservative colleagues raged against Whitman.
"[Cheney] finally stood up and he said, 'I’m gonna come out with my new energy policy, and it's not going to regulate carbon,'" remembered Chafee. "When I talk about not trusting them on WMD, that’s a big reason."
When students got a chance to interrogate Chafee, two of them demanded details on the Metric system reform. "It would be a symbolic integration of ourselves into the international community of the last 15 years," explained Chafee.
Another asked Chafee to clarify how he would reform drug policy after fulfilling a promise to end the drug war. The candidate demurred, saying that he would "listen to the neighborhoods" and build policy from there.
"Let’s unite with all of our experience to rethink the war on drugs," he said.
When another student asked Chafee an open-ended foreign policy question, the delighted candidate pulled out a speech by a former prime minister of Italy, before 9/11. He read excerpts and recalled how a "lasting peace" had looked possible.
"You had Bush, and Schroder, and Koizumi, and Putin—we had a chance to get together," said Chafee. He then began to reminisce about how in 2009 the Obama administration tried to reconstruct relations with Russia. We had some mistakes. We presented him with the reset button—we had the wrong label. That was a mistake, in my view."
In interviews after the speech, including the scrum that yielded the Islamic State answer, Chafee continued to loosely sketch a world where optimistic, globalist dreams became real. "We had, before September 11, the chance to create a more peaceful world," he argued.
And when pressed on whether former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had created any of the problems he discussed—the wrong people getting ambassadorships, for example—Chafee's cheerfulness extended to a potential political rival.
"I said what I meant," he explained. "You judge people by their actions, and these are actions that people should be judged by."