Friday, May 03, 2013

Lincoln Chafee, Rhode Island, and the fight for marriage equality (and against Republican extremism)

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Yesterday, Rhode Island became the tenth state to legalize same-sex marriage.

The state's governor, the man who signed the Marriage Equality Act into law, is Lincoln Chafee.

Governor Chafee, now an independent, used to be a Republican, serving in the Senate from 1999 to 2007. He was defeated in 2006 by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse and left the Republican Party for good in 2007.

"It's not my party anymore," he explained at the time.

The following year, in an interview with Mother Jones, he said that he "saw the Republican Party change over [his] lifetime" and agreed that he had more in common with the Democrats than the Republicans.

And, to be sure, his views on issues ranging from abortion to Israel are quite progressive. The thing is, they always have been. But he was a Republican when a lot of Republicans were fiscally conservative and if not progressive on social and other issues at least not rigidly right-wing.

Which is to say, once upon a time, it made sense for Chafee to be a Republican, particularly in a blue state like Rhode Island. It would make zero sense now. Which is why he left.


In The New York Times on Wednesday, Chafee explained why he was enthusiastically signing the bill into law and wrote the following:

I have been heartened in recent months to see members of my old party coming around on marriage equality, including the entire Republican caucus in the Rhode Island Senate -- the first time a caucus of either party has been unanimous in its support. That reflects sound political judgment, and some values that are at least as Republican as they are Democratic, including a belief in marriage as an institution and a desire to keep government out of our personal lives. 

It's one thing to talk about Rhode Island Republicans, quite another to talk about Republicans generally. And while he's right that a few strategic Republicans have flipped on marriage equality, the right-wing mainstream of the party remain firmly entrenched in anti-gay bigotry.

Way out on the ideological fringes, Chafee's "old party" is as much not his party as ever, on this as on so many other issues, putting more and more distance between it and the vast majority of Americans, not just Rhode Islanders.

I assume the governor gets that.

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