Candidate Evaluations: Lincoln Chafee

by Benjamin Studebaker

Lincoln Chafee is running for president, so let’s have a look at him, shall we? I’ll be evaluating Chafee’s background, policy history, and explicit statements to determine whether or not he would make a good president. I won’t be paying attention to electability or likeability, as is often common elsewhere on the web.

Here are all the previous candidate evaluations we’ve done, if you like this sort of thing:

This is Lincoln Chafee:

Chafee has a BA in Classics from Brown and attended the Montana State University horseshoeing school. After graduating, he cared for horse hooves for seven years. He was elected to the city council of Warwick, Rhode Island in 1986, and became mayor in 1992. In 1999, his father, US Senator John Chafee, died of congestive heart failure. Chafee was appointed to fill his father’s senate seat, and won a term for himself in 2000. In 2006, he was challenged in the republican primary by Steve Laffey. Laffey’s followers accused Chafee of being a RINO (Republican In Name Only). Chafee beat Laffey, but had to expend a lot of money and political capital to do so. He was defeated for re-election by democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. He became an independent, took a couple years off, and returned to politics in 2010, becoming governor of Rhode Island. In 2013, he joined the Democratic Party. He declined to run for re-election in 2014, and is now taking a shot at the presidency.

Chafee is the first candidate who has served as both a senator and a governor. This gives him a diverse record that is particularly interesting to look at. Let’s start with his recent run as governor.

Because Chafee served as governor for only one term and quite recently, it’s hard to discern his economic impact from the data. For instance, here’s Rhode Island per capita income against the country’s using the same data series I’ve used for Perry and O’Malley:

Chafee Per Capita Income

The Federal Reserve’s data series cuts off in 2013, so we only get a handful of data points. What I can tell you is that the national average was 94.8% of Rhode Island’s in 2011 and 95.1% of Rhode Island’s in 2013, so from what we can see, Rhode Island has lost a wee little bit of ground against the country under Chafee.

During that same period, Chafee did austerity, cutting spending as a percentage of GDP by a full point:

Chafee Spending

In the meantime, Chafee’s tax policy was regressive. He consistently supported sales tax increases and expanded the goods and services subject to it. Sales tax burdens poorer citizens, because they spend a larger percentage of their incomes. In the meantime, he cut corporation tax, made more people exempt from the estate tax, and repealed the franchise tax. All of these taxes target money at the top of the income distribution. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank noted for its affiliation with the Koch brothers and its disdain for public services and progressive taxation, gave Chafee a “B”. Whenever Cato is happy, we should be suspicious.

Chafee also targeted pensioners for cuts, raising the retirement age, eliminating cost of living adjustments, and pushing pensioners out of defined benefit plans and into private sector schemes that leave their pensions vulnerable to market upheavals. Life expectancies have not increased much over the years, particularly for those in the bottom half of the income distribution:

By eliminating cost of living increases, Chafee subjects the pensions to erosion by inflation. These pension reforms only apply to Rhode Island’s state employees, but they speak to Chafee’s general willingness to soak workers. He did not use these cuts to maintain current levels of spending in other areas, he used them to reduce taxes on corporate income and estates.

That said, Chafee was not without his virtues–he signed gay marriage into law in 2013 and he took some action on climate change.

His senate record fleshes him out a bit. Chafee has some nice attributes:

  • He’s been a consistent supporter of gun control and has earned an “F” rating from the NRA.
  • He supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and relaxed enforcement of immigration laws as governor.
  • He voted against the Iraq War–he was the only republican senator to do so. Today he takes a conciliatory strategy with both Russia and Iran.
  • He supports Obamacare and was an early supporter of health reform legislation–his father was the architect of the 1993 republican proposal that was quite similar to Obamacare, albeit without Medicaid expansion or tort reform and with a weaker employer mandate.

What does all of this add up to? On economics, Chafee’s record is unimpressive–he’s no better than O’Malley or Clinton and his state’s numbers are worse than Huckabee’s, Pataki’s, and Perry’s. On social issues, he’s about the same as the other democrats in the race. Foreign policy is his strength–he’s a genuine alternative to Hillary Clinton on foreign policy, with positions that are more theoretically robust and thought out.


Chafee’s economic record is too regressive for him to earn my endorsement, but his opposition to the Iraq War and consistently measured foreign policy positions make him a better potential president than Clinton.

With this post, I am all caught up on candidate evaluations for the moment (though there are more announcements coming in June). Since I’ve got some space left, here’s a league table summarizing my thoughts on all the candidates to have declared so far. Economic issues are double weighted, because they are by far the most important:


Economic Issues Social Issues Foreign Policy


Bernie Sanders


A- B+


Lincoln Chafee


A- B+


Martin O’Malley


A- C


George Pataki

D+ B D


Hillary Clinton

D+ A- F


Mike Huckabee

C- F D


Rand Paul



Carly Fiorina

D C- D


Lindsey Graham

D D+ F


Marco Rubio

D- D- D


Ted Cruz

D- D- D


Rick Perry

D D- F


Rick Santorum



Ben Carson F D- D


Personally, I would be very reluctant to pick a candidate with a higher economics score ahead of one with a lower score. For instance, even though Rand Paul gets higher overall score than Rick Santorum, I would rather have have Santorum because Paul is completely abysmal on econ. Economic issues have the largest direct impact on everyday Americans, and if a US president can’t handle the economy, the consequences of mismanagement are global and devastating because of the huge role America has in the world economy.