Lincoln Chafee's One Issue

Can he still carry Rhode Island?

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

As a marker of the Republican Party's flight from both Northeastern liberalism and political moderation, Lincoln Chafee's journey is instructive. It's less obvious how he intends to use it to advance a campaign to be the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party.

Read more from this series:
Martin O'Malley's More Than Marginal
The Other Lindsey Graham
George Pataki's Curious Candidacy
Rick Santorum's Only Chance
Ben Carson, Political Novice
Carly Fiorina's Best Argument
What Is a Sanders Democrat?
Which Marco Rubio for President? 
It's a Race, Hillary. Start Running.
Why Rand Paul Matters
Ted Cruz Is No Captain Courageous

Chafee, the son of a senator and governor and a former senator and governor himself, hails from Rhode Island's most politically pedigreed family. (That's not damning with faint praise: His ancestors have been running the state since the 19th century.) Over the past two decades, he has migrated from Republican to independent to Democrat, all the while maintaining that his political ideology has been consistent.

He now joins former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and independent socialist Senator Bernie Sanders in competing against the most dominant nonincumbent candidate in modern memory. Each man is running, in his own way, to the left of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential race. Chafee's recent remarks have focused on Clinton's 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war; Chafee, who was Clinton's colleague in the Senate at the time, was the lone Republican to vote against the use of military force in Iraq.

That vote is certainly historic. But its current relevance is less certain. Saying "I told you so" may be satisfying, but it offers little guidance about how the U.S. should conduct itself in the volatile Middle East or around the world.

Should the U.S. increase its military involvement in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria? Or should it exercise restraint, resolving to contain and isolate the menace? What is the best way to manage the complexities posed by Iran and a shifting, unreliable array of Sunni allies in the region? To break through, Chafee will have to do more than ask familiar (and valid) questions. What voters crave are viable, innovative answers.

Chafee's independence is well established, as is his political dexterity. It's unlikely they will be enough to win him the nomination, much less the presidency. But they may force greater candor from the woman -- or man -- who does.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.