By Ben Kamisar
Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee is aiming to take down Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump's and Clinton's favorite words during the debate Cruz: Clinton 'tired' and 'formulaic' during debate One issue you'll never hear in a presidential debate MORE over her controversial 2002 vote to support the Iraq war.
The Republican-turned Independent-turned Democrat surprised many last week when he announced he was weighing a longshot White House bid.
“She needs to be asked hard questions about her Iraq war vote and her tenure as Secretary of State and where she wants to take this country,” he told The Hill in an interview. “I think she’s tone deaf on some of these issues.”
Clinton and Chafee both served in the Senate during the run-up to the war, but while Clinton ultimately cast her vote in favor of authorizing troops, Chafee voted no.
Since he announced last Thursday he would start an exploratory committee, he’s kept Clinton — who made her own bid official on Sunday — squarely in his sights, criticizing her record in a number of media appearances.
“The magnitude of it is such that it serves to be a disqualifier, not only for the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction, that it was a false premise, but for the ramifications of what we live with today,” he said, mentioning the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“I did my homework and I looked at the evidence….she got it wrong.”
Chafee again slammed Clinton on John Catsimatidis’ radio show “The Cats Roundtable” on Sunday morning, saying her support of the Iraq war makes her unfit for the precedency.
The best person to fix the problems of the world “is certainly not someone who made the mistake of voting in favor of invading Iraq,” he said.
Clinton’s campaign declined to comment about Chafee’s potential candidacy and his criticism of her record. She did say during a Facebook live chat in 2014 that she didn't apologize for her vote in the 2008 campaign because she didn't want soldiers to think she was telling them they were putting their lives on the line for a mistake.
"I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had," she wrote in her 2014 memoir, "Hard Choices." "I wasn't alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple."
Chafee had never been in the expected mix of potential Clinton primary challengers, which included former Gov. Martin O’Malley (Md.), Vice President Biden, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
The odds against any Clinton challenger are steep, some say insurmountable—she’s the far and away choice of Democratic voters in most states and leads national primary polling by about 48 percentage points, according to an aggregation by Real Clear Politics.
None of those polls even tested Chafee, who until recently had been out of the national political spotlight for almost a decade.
His controversial decision to vote against the Iraq war, the only Republican senator to do so, foreshadowed his eventual split from the party and his decision to not back President George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004
Although he beat back a primary challenge from the right in 2006, he lost reelection to current Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) that year.
After declaring as an independent, Chafee endorsed Obama in 2008 and again in 2012, when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention. He criticized his former party during that speech over the environment, gay marriage, birth control and foreign policy.
He won the governor’s race in 2010 as an independent before switching to the Democratic Party in 2013. When it became clear he was likely to lose in a 2014 primary anyway, he elected not to run again.
But Chafee pushed back against questions about whether voters would hold his party switching against him and said his views have stayed consistent, even if his party has not. He touts his longtime support of the environment and his opposition to both the Bush tax cuts and the war in Iraq as proof.
“I think the Democrats should be coalescing around someone who has fresh ideas for how we can have fewer wars, not more wars,” he said.
“There’s not a lot of room in the Republican Party for liberals, Rockefeller Republicans. So this is a very, very comfortable home in the Democratic Party.”
Brad Bannon, a national Democratic strategist who is also a native Rhode Islander, said that while Chafee has the “right kind of persona to run against Hillary” and could galvanize some Democrats by running a “respectable” campaign that highlights progressive issues, it likely won’t be enough to overcome her overwhelming lead.
“She’ll have a hell of a lot more money than he does, she has a lot more recognition than he’ll ever have. It’s formidable,” he told The Hill.
Chafee also lacks the political network that other potential candidates, including O’Malley, have begun to build.
“To run against someone like Hillary Clinton, it’s a serious undertaking,” Bannon said. “You can’t just announce one day and snap your fingers and all of a sudden there’s going to be a national campaign structure in place.”
Even as Clinton began her swing-state tour this week in Iowa, where she came in third place during the 2008 Democratic caucuses, Chafee hasn’t relented from his criticism.
Clinton has improved her resume since 2008 with a four-year stint as secretary of State, but Chafee is skeptical that she could use that to her benefit.
“I think it’s going to be a liability—in the end, there were a lot of miles traveled but precious few accomplishments and that is the record,” he said.
Chafee accused her of a series of “diplomatic mistakes” while at State, including using the wrong Russian word on a symbolic present to Russia, a ‘reset’ button, meant to signify a new relationship between the two superpowers.
“You can’t think of one real accomplishment in her four years of Secretary of State.”
Despite the odds, Chafee says he’s serious and that he expects to mount a bid. But while the prospect of a fellow Ocean Stater in the White House intrigues Bannon, he’s not holding his breath.
“I’d love to have a Rhode Islander in the White House, we never have, but there’s no getting around the fact that it will be tough,” he said. “It’s pretty damn difficult, to state the obvious.”