Against the Tide[Please welcome Senator Lincoln Chafee in the comments. As is our tradition in Book Salons, please stay on the topic of the book. Thanks, RBG]

The conventional wisdom in Rhode Island says if Senator Lincoln Chafee (or just “Linc” here in Little Rhody) had run for re-election in any year other than 2006 he would have easily won. But it was 2006 and in a national wave Chafee lost to a Democratic challenger flipping the Senate back to the control of the Democratic Party. Despite the loss, Chafee is still very popular in the bluest State in the Union and his name is often mentioned with respect to the top leading candidates for the 2010 Governor’s race or even for Mayor of Providence, his new hometown. His new book, Against the Tide: How a Compliant Congress Empowered a Reckless President may not do anything to change the conventional wisdom; but maybe it should.

The book opens with a red meat story for those who want to hold up Chafee as a model of the State’s mascot, the “Independent Man.” The Senator writes about an encounter with the menacing Vice-President elect Richard Cheney and Chafee’s fellow Senate Republican moderates:

President-elect Bush had promised that healing, but now we moderate Republicans were hearing Richard Cheney articulate the real agenda: a clashist (sic) approach on every issue, big and small, and any attempt at consensus would be a sign of weakness…The new administration would divide the Americans into red and blue, and divide nation into those who stand with us or against us. (p.7)

Why anyone who remembers the 2000 presidential election would think the Bush Administration hadn’t planned this all along probably wanted to believe just a little too much that his message of “compassionate conservatism” was legitimate. Senator Chafee quickly learned however that Bush seemed “unequal to the awesome powers entrusted to him. (p.63)” He writes about how Bush snapped at him in an Oval Office encounter about abortion rights when Chafee mentioned that Laura Bush was a supporter of choice. More evidence, the book would suggest, of Chafee’s willingness to speak truth to power.

But Chafee’s willingness to do the right thing, consequences be damned, seems not applicable to others he writes about. For example, he laments the way the National Republican Party attacked Georgia Senator Max Cleland; the veteran who left most of his limbs on a jungle floor in the Vietnam War, but places most of the blame for this maltreatment on Cleland and the Senate Democrats. He writes:

The Democrats lost control of the Senate by reverting to form and catering to their labor constituency in a time of national emergency. They had a knack for standing up on the wrong issues and standing down on the right one. I would rather have seen the loyal opposition and Max Cleland leading the charge against another Vietnam instead of the cause of labor rights in Homeland Security. (p.99)

This may be a softer approach, but there is partisanship dripping from each syllable in these few sentences.

The book has a few flaws – Most notably, the election campaign of 2006 where Chafee won a hard fought primary only to lose in the November general election gets very little attention. In fact Chafee’s primary opponent, the extremist right winger Steve Laffey, Mayor of the City of Cranston, is not even mentioned by name. Chafee also can’t seem to drop the strategy that didn’t work for him in the general election. He writes that Democratic candidate Sheldon Whitehouse “had a record for ducking fights, which I relished to highlight (p. 179).” I was present at a press conference in Providence during the 2006 campaign when Chafee, in what seemed an uncharacteristic move, attacked Whitehouse for allegedly being “soft on crime.” This section reads like Chafee wanting a double standard – he criticizes the National Republicans for going nuclear on candidates over certain issues, but he tries to prove his political toughness in the very same way just picking different issues to drop bombs with.

The concluding section of the book is an essay about the potential for a third, more centrist party competing for attention on the national stage. Chafee, now a registered “independent” and a supporter of Democrat Barack Obama for President has a point here, and he makes it well. Overall, “Against the Tide” gives an intriguing peek behind the scenes of the right wing juggernaut that swept the country post 9-11 from a vantage point few get to experience. It is worth the read.

Pat Crowley is a blogger for RIFuture.org, Rhode Island’s premier political blog. He is also Assistant Executive Director of the Rhode Island Chapter of the National Education Association of Rhode Island (www.NEARI.org).