He used to be Republican. He used to be an independent. Now Lincoln Chafee wants to assume a new role — as contender for the Democratic party nomination for President. Chafee dropped the surprise announcement today, in both a campaign video (posted two weeks ago, according to Vimeo) and in an interview in Rhode Island:

Lincoln Chafee – 2016 Presidential Exploratory Committee from Lincoln Chafee on Vimeo.

The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman calls this “a surprise,” which may be an understatement:

Lincoln Chafee, the former Rhode Island governor who has a strong relationship with President Obama, announced his news in a web video and in an interview with Rhode Island Public Radio.

In the video, Mr. Chafee says almost immediately that as a United States senator he voted against the Iraq war — something that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton supported. It was a position that was used against Mrs. Clinton in the Democratic primary leading up to the 2008 election against Mr. Obama. …

Unlike Jim Webb, the former Virginia senator, or Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, both of whom have telegraphed their intentions to consider running for president for months, Mr. Chafee’s news caught political observers off guard.

The move itself is a headscratcher; even the introductory video is confusing. Chafee declares that Barack Obama has led “admirably,” an odd stance in a cycle that will likely feature candidates drawing contrasts to the incumbent rather than parallels. He then states that he doesn’t like how the Middle East is shaping up — but who does Chafee think was in charge of US policy for the last six-plus years on that point? Hillary Clinton, to be sure, will get the lion’s share of his criticism, but the buck stops at Admirable Leader’s desk, no?

Can Chafee threaten Hillary at all? He can argue that his nomination will move the party out of a cul-de-sac of partisanship and scandal, and put an end to the Clinton era once and for all. Despite his history of party affiliations, Chafee will likely tack toward the progressive Left in a primary against Hillary (note well the fawning references to Obama’s economic policies, which have been based on class-warfare arguments more than economic realities). At 62, he’s also a few years younger than Hillary Clinton, although not enough to matter. Chafee might still have some credibility left among independents after his adoption of Democratic affiliation in 2013, but it’ll be the base that drives the primaries, as it will for Republicans as well.

Frankly, it’s hard to imagine what Chafee can bring that Martin O’Malley can’t — and O’Malley is a decade younger than Chafee, and looks it. O’Malley also comes out of the gubernatorial ranks, without all of the party switching baggage that Chafee brings, and without the Beltway baggage either. It’ll be difficult for Democrats to attack people of privilege with a second-generation pol like Chafee on the top (or bottom) of a ticket, perhaps even more so than with Hillary. Besides, Chafee’s a politician out of the past on the national stage, definitely even more so than Hillary.

At least Chafee seems to be interested in challenging the coronation, though. Besides O’Malley, there don’t appear to be many other Democrats putting any risk into the hygienic nature of a primary fight. Maybe that, at least, is worth a little applause for Chafee.

Update: Like I said, expect a big dose of progressive populism from Chafee:

He’ll have an interview up later at the Washington Post.