Before a broad semi-circular glass wall, the autumnal parkland of Bryant University stretching off into the distance behind, the six men running for governor were about to give their final summing up. Night had fallen, and the campus was lit up, the flaming red, yellows, browns bleeding through. The well-heeled audience wore League of Women Voters buttons; well-dressed New Englanders, neat Jcrew college kids.

The six candidates arraigned across the stage, all men, looked a little shifty and seedy, before all that nature. The moderator turned to the guy at furthest left, Frank Algieri, bald and greyish, in a black shirt. He was a pharmacist, but he had the appearance of an accountant for the mob. “Now Mr Algieri, it is time to begin your summing up …” “Well I would like to begin by spending some time on the positive qualities of my opponents …”.

None of the other five looked particularly surprised by this feint. Nor did any of the audience. Indeed, the entire debate had been conducted with great politesse — even by the Democratic candidate Frank Caprio, who had made national headlines days earlier by telling President Obama to “shove it”, when he came to the state and failed to endorse him. A sharp-faced little mutt of a man, Caprio kept himself on a leash throughout, though you could see he was straining at it. The debate ranged over the pros and cons of bond issues, legalising pr-stitution and drugs, all talked about on a case-by-case basis.

The Republican candidate talked about a need to help the worst off. Everyone agreed that alternatives to prison should be promoted. I’d come to Rhode Island to see what a New England campaign was like. Now I knew. It was like Old England, or Europe at least. I had left New York mid-afternoon, watched the grime and grey of Jersey give way to the burning riot of fall, slept on the train, and woken up in Sweden.

The man I’d mainly come to see was Lincoln Chafee, the blonde-haired, slightly ethereal candidate at the right of the panel. Chafee had been a Senator for the state from 2000 to 2006, appointed to and then winning the office held by his father. He had never made much secret of his moderate credentials, voting with the Democrats far more often than the Republicans, and earning the title Number One RINO (Republican In Name Only). But event that was insufficiently liberal for Rhode Islanders, who replaced him with a Democrat in 2006. After that, he became head of Republicans and Independents for Obama, and barnstormed the country getting the vote out, both in the primaries and the election proper.

Now he’s running as an independent for Governor, hence Obama’s withholding of an endorsement for the Democratic candidate. At this point in time, the prospect of finding a moderate Republican close to hand seemed remote, so I had come to America’s smallest state, an island with a little hinterland, so that I could see at least what a lapsed Republican looked like.

To be honest, the answer is, a little flaky. Chafee’s a slight man, even a touch delicate of feature, and surprisingly nervous, mucking up his syntax under the pressure of questioning, failing to make the hard-sell on his policies. How would you continue recovery in the state? “Well, uh what we’ve done I mean look at the rail link we’ve made from the Amtrak to the airport, only airport in the country with Amtrak right in there, and we know from history that commerce grows around transport hubs goes back six thousand years from crossroads, uh river fords, …”

He had a beatific smile as he said put all this out there, for the audience to re-assemble with added parts of speech. His bunchy blondish hair had the effect of a halo. He had clearly done a lot of reading. James Taylor would play him in a made-for-TV movie; failing that, Chevy Chase, reprising his Clark Griswold role (“OK Rusty, we’re going to build a transport hub”). Chafee’s bio said that he’d spent a decade of his life as a farrier. That seemed to make sense as a New England hippie sort of thing, in the spirit of Ben and Jerry, two Vermont deadheads making an ice-cream empire. After the hippie-country-fayre thing, he went back into the family business, with the hope of building bridges and making things happen. It’s possible that Lincoln Chafee was just a little too good for this world, let alone American politics. No matter how badly he stumbled, he never lost the twinkle in his eye.

Frank Caprio was determined to put it out, with a lit cigarette if necessary. A Rahm Emanuel-style old-skool ward-heeler candidate, he had an olive suit, and the air of a head bouncer going places. He had to knock Chafee off to win the post, and he didn’t hold back.

“Yeah uh I would say it’s gonna take a lot more than a train to really make this state happen. Dat’s why you’ve got to have someone who knows what dere doin’ in dis job…” The debate had started with the inevitable question for Caprio: why had he told the President of the United States, and the leader of his party, to “shove it”? “Look I respect Obama,” he said, shearing off the title and thus disrespecting him, “but he can’t come into this state and take away half a million in donations and not know how dis state is hurting, I gotta talk up for Rhode Island”. Translation: “OK, so dis brother’s in the jump seat now, dat don’t mean that Frankie Caprio’s gonna just roll over and get screwed like a pooch know what I’m sayin”? We only just got the party off the goddam Irish, f-ck alla youse if you think we’re handing it over to the blacks.”

“Mr Chafee would you like to respond to that using your wild card?” Say what, now? Turns out I’d missed the beginning of the debate, and it had rules. “Now we’re having a quickfire response round where no wild-cards may be used. However every unused wild card can be counted for an extra 30 seconds of time in the final statements. If this had happened in Oklahoma, they would still be explaining the rules on election day. So on the one hand, designed on the assumption of an intelligence, on the other it resembles an episode of Jeopardy (“Frank?” “Yeah can I have ‘go f-ck yourself’ for fiddy dollars thanks Regis?”). Community service and shove it, Europe and not-Europe. .

The double character of Rhode Island didn’t resolve itself as I came back into Providence, a city recently vastly and recently built at its centre, with old red-brick mills meticulously restored, joined by textured, smartly finished knowledge-campus buildings. The Amtrak station was new, a handsome stone edifice, and the lacerating effect of an four-way flyover had been all but resolved. I imagined that it would fill with people in open-necked shirts and slung laptops during the day, grabbing a coffee ahead of their meeting with other molecular biology software PhDs.

After some delay, Providence is taking up the high-tech overspill of Boston’s Route 128. Various candidates in the governor’s debate had banged on about the state’s finances, and the parlous state thereof, but Providence didn’t appear to be the worse for it. Lo and behold, something of the name had reshaped its spirit: Providence, unlike most elsewhere had had some investment put into it. The double-character thing came from the fact that I was being driven through it in a town-car with a blue unicorn on the side.

“Yeah all dis sh-t went up a few years back”. Joey had picked me up the university after the debate, the vast cream sedan attracting glances amid the dark snub-nosed smart cars. The unicorn occupied the entire back panel of the car on the side. It was a demure beast, amid a landscape of tufted blue-white clouds, riding through the old row house streets. Three hundred pounds, in a coffee and brown two-tone shirt, Joey had a outline beard that made the ones I saw in Jersey look like apprentice efforts.

It thickened slightly at the goatee, thinned out to a line along the jaw, and then hooked over the ears, stopping just short of the scalp. It was quite possible that more work when into its design, execution and maintenance than into Obama’s healthcare plan. Joey punched the radio button until we hit the opening chords of Take My Breath Away, and we turned sharply into Federal Hill.

“Yeah, dere’s two Rhode Islands. Diss is mine.” Down the main drag to De Pasquale Plaza, I could see what he meant. It was an old wooden district that the Protestants had long vacated. In their stead was a series of trattoria, upmarket pizzerias, and downmarket bars, full of dark-haired women named Maria chewing out hapless Match.Com dates: “Honey let me tell you when a man goes out with me when a man goes out with me I expect a standard you know I expect a standard. And what you are wearing is not a standard. It is not. Hey Rita gimme another limoncello.”

I had heard that Rhode Island was the only majority Catholic state in the country, and assumed that that was made up of Boston Irish overspill. So to a degree it is, but it is also the farther shore of Naples. Whole areas of the place are like a continuous festa, pizza everywhere and the line down the middle of the road painted red, white and green. Chafee and Caprio represent the state’s two halves, the WASP residuum, and the town-car set.

You wouldn’t say there was too much conflict between the two halves about the state’s future direction. The reconditioned mills tell their own story, of a state remaking itself rather than living off past glory or luxuriating in the tsunami of bullsh-t passing currently passing for a debate on national direction. What was most notable about the governors’ debate was that there was not a single mention from any candidate, of exceptionalism, or “we’re Americans, our trousers are the envy of the world”. Not any of that. People just talked about the issues. Frank Caprio — Obama’s sternest critic in the debate — mentioned the recent Rhode Island floods, “worst in our country’s history, worse than Katrina”. But you didn’t hear about them, because they handled it, in an efficient and orderly fashion.

Back at the hotel — an all-white extravaganza, white tiles, white sofa, white misty cotton bedspread, as if the whole thing had been executed to the personal design of Marisa Tomei, I watched Jon Stewart’s interview with Obama, which occupied his entire half-hour show. The President’s decision to appear on a satire/comedy show had attracted much criticism from the likes of CNN among others — which would be fine if CNN had not long ago abandoned the most basic practice of critical inquiry into the news it relays, leaving the field to people such as Stewart. The Obama interview was softball in places — though nothing compared to the North Korean-style of Fox News dealing with Sarah Palin, inter alia — but it managed to get to the nub of Obama’s problem, in selling the torturous process of reform:

Stewart: With health care and these health exchanges not kicking in until 2014, the question is, can we still say ‘yes, we can?’

Obama: Yes, we can …

Stewart: Mmmmm

Obama: But …

(studio laughter, some groans)

On the other news channels, they were still running with the Rand Paul incident, in which a half-dozen of the Tea Party Kentucky Senate candidate’s supporters had lammed on a Moveon supporter, pushing her to the ground, and putting a boot on her neck. The man in question, a Paultard hipster type named, of course, Terry Prophet, would later appear on television to fie his side of the story. Bizarrely he would only allow himself to be shown below the neck, even though his image was everywhere. Faced with widespread condemnation, he went on the attack and claimed that the woman should apologise to him. His reasons for using his boot were perfectly legitimate he insisted — “I have some issues with my back.” That appeared to be the caper really, the perfect expression of right-wing squaddist politics, American-style, a mixture of equal parts brutality, self-pitying victimhood and inadequate health care.

Yet faced with this dark gift, this moment that might detach a section of wavering Tea Party sympathisers from its crazy base, there was no one among the Democrats who could or would sheet it home. Surely at this point, Barack Obama could have brought himself closer to the American centre, by expressing an anger and outrage, we’re American, this doesn’t happen here, and so on?

The Right have just spent the past three days banging on about the sacking of Juan Williams, an NPR (public radio) commentator who appears as a semi-liberal shill on Fox News, after some  ill-advised oversharing about being made nervous by Muslims at airports. “What’s on Mr Williams’ mind is between he and his psychiatrist” NPR’s head had said, announcing his dismissal, an epitome of liberal blundering, which the Right turned into an attack on public-funded media. It’s a measure of the Democrats’ classic loss of politically speaking, all self-belief, that they managed to underplay actual violence.

**

The next day, on the train back to New York, the Times had another instalment in the woeful tale of how the Democrats lost their base. The NYT/CBS survey put it plain- – they had shed voters in every sector they could previously count on, women, Catholics, college graduates, thirtysomethings, low-middle income … you name it. In Ohio, where the GM bailout has saved many communities from the brink, people are angry at “the debt”, “the bailout”, and even at the proposal to end tax breaks for the $250,000+ p.a. Never blame the people for your own political failure, the adage goes, but American voters test that moral to the very limit. Voter after voter who are going to try the Republicans, because they are angered by the “change that’s come out of far left field” — as if Obama had not made his commitment to a comprehensive healthcare plan, a new energy jobs creation plan, and many more big-ticket items amply clear. Now, they were going to try something else, even if it be the exact opposite. And the Democrats will continue to lose ground until they accept that the basic ability to reason politically has vanished from American society, and a left populism has to be put in its place.

I was thinking all this, papers spread out in the train’s club car, when there was a whoomp, and a sound like something full being hit hard, the train slowed and stopped, and the desk light went off. The conductors lounging near the cafe-bar suddenly looked pale, their walkie-talkies crackled and they headed towards the back. When they came back they were hearty again, relieved. “We hit a deer,” one said. It was clear what they had first believed we had hit. I realised that I’d heard it happen. It was that whoomp, a sort of liquid bang, something emptying out. But everyone was relieved. We hadn’t hit anyone, we’d just killed Bambi. After 10 minutes, the lights came back on, we started up, and continued on to New York.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW