Lincoln Chafee’s Blunder…Worse Than Bush’s and Clinton’s?

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October 16, 2015 by swingstatevoter

At the first 2016 Democratic Presidential Debate on October 13, 2015, Lincoln Chafee was asked to defend his voting record respective to the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, more commonly known as the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933.  Chafee has been very critical of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton for not being tough enough on big banks, so the question about him having voted in favor of repealing Glass-Steagall (which instigated the practice of banks, securities firms, and insurance companies to consolidate) was a fair assessment of his judgment.

The answer provided by Chafee led to audible groans in the audience, and a very awkward exchange between the former Senator from Rhode Island and debate moderator Anderson Cooper.  Chafee explained he was new to the Senate (he had just been appointed to the office two days prior), it was his first vote, and the bill had almost unanimous Senate support, which seemed to suggest he succumbed to peer pressure.  A better explanation could have been, perhaps, he didn’t realize the repercussions of such a bill and recent events have led him to change his views. Yet the reasons given for his poor judgment left a sour taste in the viewers’ and the other candidates’ mouths.

When it comes to politicians elected to office, the public really does not provide any benefit of a grace period or a learning curve.  Historically, we have held our presidents, congresspersons, and local legislators responsible for the successes and the pitfalls of their office from day one.  We expect said elected official to hit the ground running, and to handle anything and everything without any excuses of “I’m new here, cut me some slack!”  This particular answer for the Glass-Steagall repeal vote on November 4, 1999, may very well be the beginning of the end for Lincoln Chafee in his presidential aspirations, if only for his inability to say “I may have been new, but I was there to make a decision and I made the wrong one.”

In that same light, Donald Trump recently made comments about the September 11, 2001 attacks having happened under President George W. Bush’s time in office.  These comments sparked a heavy amount of criticism from some media sources and from other Republicans, who said Bush should not be held responsible for a terrorist attack that happened so early in his tenure.  To these Republicans, and especially for Jeb! Bush, the terrible tragedy of losing nearly 3,000 Americans on that fateful day should not be overshadowed by any actions taken by the former president in his short amount of time in office before it happened.

In fact, on 9/11/01 Bush had been president for almost nine months.  As does any president, he received daily briefings from various intelligence agencies about potential threats to the nation and the world. As early as the spring of 2001, Bush had been receiving information from the CIA that groups of people present in the U.S. at the time were planning a terrorist attack, and on June 22, 2001, the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) noted the threat to the country was “imminent”. The administration denied requests to pursue the issue further, saying the intelligence wasn’t convincing enough.

The CIA provided a strong warning to the Bush Administration on June 29, 2001, not to ignore the intelligence, as the threat was very credible and would cause mass casualties.  Culminating in the now-infamous PDB on August 6, 2001, which read “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”, the CIA provided historical data about Bin Laden’s operations in order to strengthen the call to action in stopping the attacks.

Even if we grant some credence to the difficulty of transitioning one administration to another, eight and a half months of leadership and the level of information provided about potential threats does not seem worthy of ignoring when we try to answer questions about what could have been done differently.  Certainly, if we do not allow Lincoln Chafee – a man who had been appointed to fill the Senate seat of his deceased father, and had been in office for two days before such a controversial bill like Gramm-Leach-Bliley was presented – any benefit of a grace period to learn about the repercussions of his decisions, then why do we allow so much more benefit to something like the decision to ignore intelligence that might have prevented the 9/11 terrorist attacks?

I admit that the vote on a bill to repeal the brick wall between banks and securities firms which eventually led to the bundling and inappropriate ratings of securities trading tied to sub-prime mortgages, the burst of the housing bubble, and the near-collapse of the economy in 2008 cannot quite compare to the human casualties from 19 terrorists hijacking airplanes and crashing them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but the bottom line is that I find it puzzling the latter (more tragic) of the two is the one in which we are supposed to forgive the decisions of a nine-month tenured official while scoffing at the decisions of an official with a two-day tenure.

As much as it pains me to admit that Donald Trump may be right about something, he is right, by virtue of the precedent being set with the Benghazi hearings. The very same Republicans who are asking not to hold George W. Bush personally responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11 are now leading the charge to hold former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally responsible for the deaths of four Americans on September 11, 2012, at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.  The details of the attack in Libya are increasingly becoming clear, and at a high level they are not very different from those of 9/11/01.

U.S. diplomats had been warned in the months, and (even more strongly) in the days leading up to the Benghazi attack about growing problems with security around the compound. Security officers asked the State Department for additional security, but the requests were denied. The State Department wanted to maintain a low profile in Libya, and determined it would not be prudent to increase security. The decision proved to be fatal, and the attack on the compound led to the loss of four Americans.

After multiple investigations, the Republicans still feel led to investigate further until they prove that the decision by the State Department that led to the deaths was Hillary Clinton’s personal decision, though it has still not been proven that Clinton herself was the one who made the call to deny the extra security.  Let us just say for sake of argument that it was her decision – despite the intelligence warnings she gave the order not to increase security prior to the attack in Libya.  This would be on par with George W. Bush’s order to, despite the intelligence, not increase security in the United States prior to the World Trade Center attack.

What was deemed an innocent mistake on the part of Bush is somehow the smoking gun the Republicans seek with which they would prosecute and imprison Clinton. Republicans are walking a dangerous path, and they need to think very clearly about the implications of their current actions.

There are two schools of thought on these issues: 1) Bush and Clinton should be forced to acknowledge egregious errors in judgment, but they are not personally responsible for the deaths of Americans, or 2) both Bush and Clinton should be held accountable for their errors in judgment and personally responsible for the deaths of Americans.

There is no room for the third option (to which the Republicans currently subscribe) that Bush was innocently blindsided by the terrorist attacks and cannot hold any blame, yet Clinton must be investigated repeatedly to find “what did she know and when did she know it?!?!” This option clearly labels the Benghazi committee as a partisan investigation that holds the office of a Republican presidency to a much lower standard than any Democratic official.

What they may not realize is that to claim George W. Bush deserves a pass for not being prepared for 9/11 because “he was only in office for nine months” paints him in a very incompetent light.  How much time would he have needed to get up to speed in order to have truly prevented it? Does Dubya need a full year to “president” to get the hang of the job when all other elected officials are expected to report for duty on day one?

Sorry, Lincoln Chafee. Sorry Hillary Clinton. You both made horrible mistakes, but apparently you’ll continue to pay the price for it while some others in a much higher office will be able to claim they are innocent merely because they were too new to the job, and what led to their mistakes simply didn’t matter since they “kept us safe” afterward.

We as a society need to be mindful that our reaction to Lincoln Chafee’s answer about his first Senate vote should not be more worthy of ending his political career than the events surrounding 9/11 or Benghazi ending the political careers of Bush or Clinton (or any of their ilk).  Priorities are important, and it doesn’t look like ours are in the correct order.

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