Lincoln Chafee, affable and soft spoken, is an unlikely wrecking ball.
But with the former Rhode Island governor's official entrance into the Democratic presidential race Wednesday evening, the field finally has a candidate willing to go after Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Chafee’s new campaign logo promises “fresh ideas,” and he delivered plenty during his remarks. The former Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat laid out an unusual set of priorities that emphasized strengthening the United Nations and converting America to the metric system.
In an interview with msnbc following his announcement at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, Chafee reserved no punches in attacking the former secretary of state, whose strength has kept many more high-profile candidates out of the race.
Chafee has called Clinton’s vote for the Iraq war “disqualifying” and refused to say Wednesday whether he would would vote for her in a general election if she wins the Democratic nomination.
“We'll cross that bridge if we get to it. I'm just not convinced she's going to be the Democratic nominee,” he said. Asked again if he was ruling out voting for her against a Republican, Chafee repeated only that he would “cross that bridge if we get to it.”
On Clinton’s 2002 vote in favor of the Iraq War, which arguably cost Clinton the 2008 Democratic nomination, Chafee said it was unacceptable. “I think that the Democrats have to use this Republican war against the Republicans in 2016. It's their war. They started it. We can't have our candidate, the Democratic nominee for president, having voted for the war,” he said.
Chafee, a former Republican, was the only member of his party in the Senate to vote against the war.
He also went after Clinton Wednesday on the private email server she used a secretary of state, saying it “violate[d] internal government rules without a doubt.” And he questioned her ethics. “If you look at her past performance, which everybody should be judged by, it just doesn't meet the test of scrutiny."
Clinton is “just too opportunistic,” Chafee continued. “I think the temptation of taking that Clinton Foundation money colored her judgment when it came to rendering decisions as secretary of state.”
Chafee added he thought decisions made at Clinton’s State Department “were made especially in conjunction with the money coming into the Clinton Foundation.”
But Chafee pointedly refused to go after any of the other candidates in the race, or even mention their names.
A Clinton spokesperson declined to comment.
Chafee’s political compass seems a bit stuck in the time when he left the Senate in 2007 and the Iraq War was at its worst. Much of his speech was reserved for a rebuke of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy, neoconservatives and the damage he said they did to the U.S. reputation on the international stage.
In fact, Chafee explained, under questioning from students, that the main goal of going metric is to symbolically show that the U.S. is joining with the rest of the world, which already uses the system. He also said the switch would boost the economy. “I was there in Canada when they did it. Why would they do it if there wasn’t economically beneficial?” he said.
Chafee vowed to let NSA leaker Edward Snowden return home; to stop appointing campaign donors to ambassadorships; to rein in U.S. drone strikes; to repair relations with Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia; and to “wage peace” around the globe. He pulled out a piece of paper and quoted -- at length -- from disgraced former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
“I enjoy challenges,” Chafee said before declaring himself to be a candidate for president at the top of his remarks.
Chafee told msnbc he wanted to “get out of Rhode Island” for his announcement and do it “inside the Beltway.” The auditorium at George Mason, cut in half by a partition, was not quite full with reporters and students, who applauded politely.
Chafee’s speech focused almost entirely on foreign policy (his remarks were part of a foreign policy lecture series), but most of the questions focused on domestic and economic issues. He said he would lift the ban on transgender people serving in the military and create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. On drug policy, he said he would defer to the United Nations General Assembly.
On income inequality and lifting people up out of poverty, Chafee said he would raise the minimum wage and fix tax policy, recalling the time he voted against the Bush tax cuts. To solve the problems of inner city violence and police brutality, brought to light by protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, Chaffee offered better education opportunities.
Asked what he would do about climate change, Chafee launched into a story about former Vice President Dick Cheney “back when I was a Republican.”
On stage, Chafee sometimes seemed tentative and uncomfortable, re-answering questions after the next questioner had begun.
The students in the room, many of whom were in a journalism class, were happy that he came but not entirely sure what to make of him. “I’m a little worried about him,” said senior Kathleen Mundie. “He's too hesitant and sweet.”