Lincoln Chafee’s face virtually illuminates his office as he reminisces about seeing wild kangaroos in Australia.
“It brings a smile to my face thinking about them bounding around,” Chafee said in an interview at the nondescript part-office, part-storage space he maintains on the basement level of a strip mall in Warwick.
Shortly after the former Rhode Island senator and governor dropped his Democratic presidential bid last October, he took a six-week trip to visit his son, Caleb, who was studying abroad in Melbourne.
“The kangaroos are like deer,” he said. “Strange creatures with their big tails. They bounce. And then the koala bears, up in the trees eating – beautiful little bears.”
The best thing about not running for president, he says, is all the quality time the lifelong politician has gotten to spend recently with his three children.
Yet, the former Republican mayor of Warwick-turned-Rhode Island senator-turned-Independent governor-turned Democratic presidential candidate says he has no regrets about his 2016 campaign.
“I think about it all the time,” he said. “I don’t have any regrets.”
Chafee says he believed his resume working at the local, state, and federal level, as well as his focus on middle-class issues and foreign policy could’ve given Hillary Clinton a run for the nomination. However, his campaign never escaped low-single-digit support in early polls.
“I thought the party wanted more than to just have somebody anointed,” he said, adding that he feels “vindicated in the success of Sen. [Bernie] Sanders,” as well as by the response he received from voters.
“The New Hampshire people — and the same with Iowa — would say, ‘Thank you for running. We want choices,’” Chafee said. “And what more could you ask than that?”
His cheery, recollective demeanor briefly then turned into a rare frown, as he as recalled a less receptive audience: The media.
“They’d come and follow me around and wouldn’t talk for a second on where I stood on free trade or bringing [Edward] Snowden home or banning capital punishment,” he said, visibly frustrated. “I thought I had some provocative things to say on the campaign trail.”
“All they talk about is process; ‘How come you don’t have bumper stickers?’ And then the real trivial thing: ‘Why are you wearing a tie in the summer?’” he said, both laughing and shaking his head. “Can we please — Bernie says the same thing — can we please talk about the issues?”
In the events in which all the candidates attended, Chafee hopes his candidacy had a positive impact, however limited it may have been, on the importance of America’s role in the world and how the country is perceived.
Of course, the biggest moment of the campaign was perhaps also his worst.
“No matter how many other debates I’ve had through my career, nothing compared to that,” Chafee said.
In addition to receiving by far the least speaking time of the five candidates in the first Democratic debate, three rough moments marked Chafee’s performance (though he self-grades his opening statement with high marks). In each case, however, he thinks CNN moderator Anderson Cooper unfairly singled him out.
During his first answer, Chafee recalled Cooper interrupting his assertion that he had been “like a block of granite on the issues,” despite changing party affiliations.
“He starts saying, ‘Soft granite,’” Chafee said, noting that it was the GOP that left him, rather than the other way around. “I never changed since my days back in the ‘80s. I never wiffle-waffle on issues.”
When Cooper returned to him, he asked Chafee how he could criticize Clinton for her ties to Wall Street when he voted to repeal Glass-Steagall. His less-than-nimble response was that it was his first vote in the Senate, after he was appointed to replace his late father and that the final vote was approved 90-8 in the Senate.
Chafee admits the vote was a mistake and says he supports Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s bill to reinstate Glass-Steagall. But he thinks Cooper was trying to compare his mistake to Clinton’s vote to authorize the war in Iraq.
“Yes, I made a mistake on Glass-Steagall, but don’t dare compare those two votes,” he said. “Nevermind that I just got there.”
Alas, the proverbial nail in the coffin of Chafee’s debate performance, was Clinton’s onstage dismissal of his criticism of her use of a private email server as secretary of state.
Chafee said he thought it was “strange” that Cooper asked if Clinton wanted to respond, rather than what her response was.
“It set her up to say no. All the other times he said ‘Your turn to respond.’ This time he phrased it differently. Almost as though they’re…” Chafee said, trailing off.
To steal a page from some of the Republican candidates’ debate textbook, Chafee said he wishes he took on the moderators a bit more.
“I came here to debate these four people; I didn’t need another one,” he said, concluding that Cooper was “overly aggressive” with him compared to other candidates.
“Of course,” Chafee added. “I wish I answered that Glass-Steagall question better.”
A week after the debate, Chafee announced he was ending his campaign.
“I don’t consider myself retired; I say ‘sabbatical,’” Chafee said. “And I try to be productive.”
After returning from his six-week travels to Australia and New Zealand with his son, Chafee said he took two weeks to watch his oldest daughter, Louisa, successfully qualify for the U.S. Olympic sailing team in Florida.
It was impossible in the past to devote such time to his family, he notes, as the demands of unexpected events often would interrupt personal plans during his time in office. Though he adds that he is proud that he thinks he’s been a good father throughout his time in public life.
Chafee says he plans on voting in the April 26 Rhode Island Democratic primary, but won’t let on if he’ll vote for Clinton or Sanders.
“I enjoy watching the survivors continue on,” he said. “I just admire the stamina it takes to do this.”
With regards to his own future job prospects, Chafee says he’s considering a possible return to academia. After losing his Senate seat in 2006, he took a job at his alma mater, Brown University, as a visiting fellow teaching international studies, which he said he enjoyed.
While he’ll have to make a decision sometime soon – “I can’t wait too long, because I think they’re looking for fresh material” – he’s not in any particular rush.
For now, his plans comprise spending more time with his youngest daughter, Thea, who rides horseback; traveling to France to watch Louisa in pre-Olympic regattas; and then going to Rio in August to watch her compete in the Summer Games.
Himself a sailor, Chafee hopes to get his own sailboat in the water soon, something he never got a chance to do while campaigning last summer.
“Right now I’m just taking some time, which I’ve never done before since high school,” he said.
“So far, it’s been OK.”