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Lincoln Chafee withdraws, quotes “Lysistrata,” spreads grief across the nation

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 30:  Lincoln Chafee visits FOX Business Network at FOX Studios on September 30, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 30: Lincoln Chafee visits FOX Business Network at FOX Studios on September 30, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images)
Rob Kim/Getty Images

Welcome to the final installment of What's Up With Lincoln Chafee, a somewhat-less-than-weekly series at Vox in which we checked in on the life and times of former moderate Republican senator turned independent governor of Rhode Island turned Democratic presidential candidate Lincoln Chafee.

Tragic news, Chaficionados. The heavyweight from the Plantation State is out of the 2016 race:

This news wasn't totally unexpected. Speculation of an exit arose Thursday night after Linc was overheard talking about his imminent withdrawal from the race at Dave's Market, the No. 1 independent grocer in the state of Rhode Island:

The Chafster made it official during a speech to the Democratic National Committee's Women's Leadership Forum in Washington, DC, at which he received all the respect from establishment Democrats to which he's become accustomed during this campaign:

"Do we want to be remembered as a bomber of weddings and hospitals?"

Chafee's actual speech focused on what's been the main theme of his campaign all along: the need for a less hawkish foreign policy.

"After much thought, I have decided to end my campaign for president today," he explained. "I would like to take this opportunity one last time to advocate for a chance to be given to peace."

This being a forum on women's leadership, the speech began with a few awkward nods at how women are better, less warlike leaders than men. Chafee even saw fit to cite Aristophanes's Lysistrata as an explanation of why women are needed in foreign affairs:

Since today is all about women’s leadership it reminds me of one of my favorite Greek plays; Lysistrata, a comedy from about 400 BCE by Aristophanes. In that play, a group of women, fed up with the war mongering of their husbands, agree to withhold their favors until peace returns. And it worked!

Anyway, let’s talk about the present.

"Anyway," indeed. Even more unfortunate was the next paragraph, which devolves into benevolent sexist speculation about women being less selfish than men:

Studies show that women tend to lead differently than men, in that women are more likely to be collaborative and team oriented. It is undeniable the benefits women provide to the pursuit of peace.

But once that throat clearing is done, the rest of the speech focused entirely on the failures of American military adventurism. The US, Chafee noted, has no real rivals when it comes to military capability. This is obviously correct, but it's rare to hear a national politician admit it outright:

When I was a senator, a general from the Pentagon testified before the Foreign Relations Committee on global military powers. I asked him who was second to the U.S. in military might? He thought for a bit and said, "probably the U.K." Yes that was a few years ago but the point remains true: no real rival to the United States exists when it comes to total weaponry and deployment potential.

And yet, Chafee argues, this power isn't a sufficient tool for achieving American objectives abroad: "We are sinking ever deeper and deeper into an endless morass in the Middle East and North Africa. People keep dying, and peace seems further and further away. It’s evident that all this military power isn’t working for us right now."

By the end, Chafee was making a full-throated critique of the Obama administration's — and especially Hillary Clinton's — interventionism, especially as far as the drone war is concerned:

The United States of America is so strong militarily, economically and culturally that we can take chances for peace. In fact, as a strong mature world leader, we must take chances for peace. If we have courage, if we take risks, we can have Prosperity through Peace, not just in the United States, but all over the world.

Do we want to be remembered as a bomber of weddings and hospitals? Or do we want to be remembered as Peacemakers, as pioneers of a more harmonious world?

If American war veterans and Viet Cong fighters can laugh together on the Fourth of July, then I know so too can Iranians and Israelis, Shias and Sunnis, Turks and Kurds.

This might seem Kumbaya-ish — though, as Chafee notes earlier in the speech, US veterans and Viet Cong fighters really did have a Fourth of July reunion in Da Nang this year.

But the speech is a reminder that Chafee's was the only truly antiwar campaign of the 2016 cycle. He was the only Republican senator to vote against the Iraq War in 2002; he opposes the Obama administration's anti-ISIS airstrikes; he calls drone strikes "extrajudicial assassinations." Bernie Sanders opposed the war in Iraq, too, but he supports drone strikes (albeit only when used "very selectively") and the anti-ISIS strikes. And he barely talks about foreign policy, let alone criticize Hillary Clinton for her super-hawkish record.

That left Chafee as the only candidate in the race critiquing Clinton from the left on foreign affairs, the issue on which she differs from the Democratic base the most. That was the opening that Obama used to beat her in 2008, and yet none of her 2016 challengers but Chafee tried to exploit it. Chafee was never going to win. But he was trying to spark a genuine debate about whether more or less perpetual American military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia are really wise. He never really succeeded, and with him gone, the chance of Clinton being seriously challenged on these points has apparently evaporated.

We'll always have our memories

These are sad times, Chaficionados. But let's not forget the good times the Chafee campaign brought us:

  • Remember when Wolf Blitzer abandoned all pretense of impartiality and straight-up begged Chafee to drop out of the race?

It was quite a ride, Chafee 2016. I'm sad it's over. We'll miss you, big guy.