Can Lindsey Graham Win?

The NYT paints the longshot senator as a happy warrior trying to win the White House by doing it his way.

Lindsey Graham Campaign

In an interesting profile piece (“Lindsey Graham’s Old-School Campaign Amid Field of Memes“), the NYT paints the longshot senator as a happy warrior trying to win the White House by doing it his way. After several paragraphs recounting campaign trail anecdotes, they get to the point.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida said he would run for president only if he could do it “joyfully.” Mr. Graham is actually doing so, taking the lessons he learned while riding alongside his friend and mentor, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, on his Straight Talk Express in 2008. As his sidekick and comrade, Mr. Graham internalized Mr. McCain’s school of retail politics — from the shake-every-hand town hall to the nothing-to-lose ethos born from barely registering in most national polls.

“You know what I like most about running for president? It’s almost like running for sheriff,” said Mr. Graham, who turns 60 on Thursday. “It’s just fun.”

In recent weeks, however, Mr. Graham has found himself thrust into the more somber role of consoler-in-chief, after a young white man was charged in the killing of nine black parishioners during a Bible study in Charleston, S.C. Mr. Graham canceled his campaign events and raced home, helping push his state’s political leadership to call for removing the Confederate battle flag — a symbol of racial hatred for many — from the grounds of the State House.

And with Congress back in session this week, he has continued his role as an outspoken critic of the public outlines of a possible nuclear deal with Iran. On Wednesday, he gave his first major foreign policy speech, outlining his national security agenda, at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

But generally, Mr. Graham offers a departure from Washington’s self-serious culture, a thoughtful man who also happens to be engaged in the jovial pursuit of politics.

[…]

As for now, Mr. Graham has the advantages of a perpetual underdog. He is struggling to crack the top 10 in national polls, a position that would ensure a spot on the early primary debate stage. And, in some ways, he is liberated from many of the unappealing trappings of a presidential campaign: He has no obvious base to pander to, no establishment middle ground to lurch toward, no billionaire donor to placate.

Instead, Lindsey can just be Lindsey: the anti-abortion, pro-military, hawkish Republican who also happens to believe in climate change and a comprehensive approach to immigration, and who asks voters to sacrifice when it comes to overhauling entitlement programs.

“I think his motivation is to make national security issues at the forefront of this campaign, and those are certainly issues that he cares deeply about and knows a lot about,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine. (Mr. Graham sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee.)

While Mr. Graham’s candidacy may seem far-fetched, many Republicans privately commend his candor, saying his policy positions are rooted in hard truths their party needs to hear.

Mr. Graham, for instance, mocks his Republican rivals for their answers when asked about climate change. “Everybody says, ‘Well, I’m no scientist,'” Mr. Graham said. “O.K., well, why don’t you believe 90 percent of the people who are? Why do you only believe the one guy who tells you what you think people want to hear?”

On immigration, Mr. Graham helped write the bipartisan overhaul measure that offered a path to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants already in the country, which passed the Senate with broad support in 2013. And, unlike Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican and 2016 candidate for president who also helped write the bill, Mr. Graham has not backed away from it.

Mr. Graham also has outlined the most detailed plan of any of the candidates for combating violent extremism at home and abroad.

His path to victory, he says, is simple enough: exceed expectations in Iowa; finish in the top tier in New Hampshire; and then win his home state, South Carolina.

While he’s a long shot to break out of an absurdly large field, Graham’s approach is the right one. Candidates simply can’t survive the grueling marathon of a presidential race by pretending to be something they’re not. I’ve long found Graham to be likable and decent and he’s got a wealth of experience that would be an asset in the White House. And, certainly, being a favorite son in the key primary state of South Carolina can’t hurt.

His biggest selling point, in his mind, is that he’s ready ”to be commander in chief on Day 1.” He’s certainly more qualified in that regard than most recent presidents, possessing genuine expertise on military and foreign affairs and the credibility that comes from being a retired Air Force Reserve colonel, albeit in a service support role. Alas, it’s also the area in which we most disagree. He seems to believe that no problem in the world is too big to solve so long as the United States is willing to lead and that “leadership” almost always comes in the form of military power. Alas, that seems to be the view of most of the legitimate contenders in the field, including presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. HarvardLaw92 says:

    No, but he can (and likely will) certainly contribute to keeping the clown car alive long past its expiration date.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    Demonstrating once again that the answer to all headline questions is NO.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    Lindsay Graham is “ready to lead” a country that will absolutely not follow him. I don’t know what alternate fantasy world neocons inhabit, but over here in the real world the American people are fed up with foreign adventures. So, no: he’s not ready to lead because he’s utterly out of touch.

  4. stonetools says:

    Again with the rhetorical quesions as headlines…
    I can see a Lindsay Graham as Secretary of Defense if a Republican wins, though.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I don’t know what alternate fantasy world neocons inhabit, but over here in the real world the American people are fed up with foreign adventures.

    What about Hillary Clinton leads you to believe she wouldn’t engage in foreign adventures as president? She voted for the Iraq War as Senator and was a key voice in getting us into Libya despite President Obama’s reluctance. We’d have intervened much more heavily into the Syrian civil war if she’d had her druthers.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:

    Is Hillary running on foreign adventures? No. She’s running on day care and equal pay. Graham is running on foreign adventures.

  7. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @James Joyner: Part of the problem is that Hillary is neoconnish enough.

  8. edmondo says:

    Can he win?

    I sincerely hope not. His “solutions” to all our problems are plagiarized right out of the McCain playbook. Bomb it. Bomb everything, all the time.

    From his recent Roll Call interview:

    Graham envisions a U.S.-led multinational force, with significant contributions of both blood and treasure from countries in the region.

    “Ten thousand — probably us because I don’t want to lose. You’re going to need a large force. There are … 30,000 or 40,000 ISIL guys, only God knows how many. I’m not looking for a fair fight here,” Graham said. “I’m looking for a large regional army where the vast majority would be Arabs and Turks, but I fear if they go in without us they could actually lose.”

    He’s not just silly. He’s downright dangerous.

  9. Pinky says:

    @michael reynolds: Professional wrestlers change personas all the time. What stays constant in their list of moves in the ring. Elections, especially primaries, are about developing colorful characters who get strong crowd response. Once the bell rings, though, it’s time to govern, and if you’ve followed someone, you know what their go-to moves are.

  10. Pete S says:

    @James Joyner:

    What about Hillary Clinton leads you to believe she wouldn’t engage in foreign adventures as president?

    I think it is too much to hope for to find a presidential candidate in this cycle who won’t engage in foreign adventures. But his rhetoric over the years suggests that Mr. Graham will engage in more of them than just about any other candidate.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    @Pinky:

    Hillary is tough on foreign policy. Good. She couldn’t be elected if she were unwilling to drop a bomb – something the Bernie Sanders supporters need to get straight. POTUS is the chief of the tribe, and wimps get no votes in the general election.

    But that’s a far cry from the incessant war-mongering of McCain and Graham.

  12. Franklin says:

    The environment and climate change are at the top, or very close to the top of my priority list. As such, Graham is one of my favorite Republican candidates. But that’s not saying much.

  13. CSK says:

    He doesn’t have a chance. The “base” hates his guts, and in any case are now slobbering over Donald Trump the way they once slobbered over Cruz, and before that, Palin.

    Trump, by the way, is running ahead of any other Republican in North Carolina, according to PPP. I wonder how he’ll do in Graham’s home state.

  14. dmichaelwells says:

    While I realize that blog posts and comments have to be shorthand and conclusory, there is no justification for attempting to equate the foreign policies of HRC and Senator Graham. Graham with his sidekick Senator McCain haven’t seen a problem that wouldn’t be solved by bombing some country and killing lots of innocent people. We have lost the immediacy of dealing death and destruction. There is no draft. Bombings occur from 20,000 or more feet, drones controlled and fired from isolated outposts in Nevada. No muss, no fuss (except for the innocent civilian victims). Therefore, I am disappointed in Michael Reynolds’ comment that HRC should be willing to bomb and if not, she is a “wimp.” No, bombing must be the last or only resort to substantial threats to this country, not the default position. I want a president who sees that. It takes no personal courage to initiate long distance destruction.

  15. michael reynolds says:

    @dmichaelwells:

    I am disappointed in Michael Reynolds’ comment that HRC should be willing to bomb and if not, she is a “wimp.”

    Dude, do you want Jeb Bush or do you want Hillary? Because those are the two choices. It’s either Hillary or the Republican.

    If HRC can be portrayed as “weak” she’s done. Period, done. George McGovern done. Mike Dukakis done. Fritz Mondale done. Americans will not now, will not any time soon, vote for a candidate who does not fill the “warrior chieftain” part of the role.

    You can be as disappointed as you like, but that’s the reality. There is zero chance – absolutely zero – of a lefty peacenik winning the presidency. First time in my life that leftwing Democrats tried that we got Nixon, and that was in the middle of Vietnam with Watergate coming on. Then we got Reagan.

  16. bill says:

    no, he’s too southern and sounds a little gay. there, i said it.

  17. Franklin says:

    @bill: Well, you’re a brave little soul, now aren’t you?

  18. C. Clavin says:

    possessing genuine expertise on military and foreign affairs

    WTF are you smoking?
    Butters is wrong about everything he says.
    Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Not just on matters of opinion…factually wrong.
    About every-fxcking-thing.
    And worse than being wrong about everything…is that he is scared to death of everything.
    I would rather Jenos was President that this sad little doofus.

  19. de stijl says:

    @michael reynolds:

    If HRC can be portrayed as “weak” she’s done. Period, done. George McGovern done. Mike Dukakis done. Fritz Mondale done. Americans will not now, will not any time soon, vote for a candidate who does not fill the “warrior chieftain” part of the role.

    Obama won because he didn’t vote for the Iraq war.

  20. michael reynolds says:

    I hope Democrats will not decide the time has come to pull a Tea Party and try to push the party too far out of the mainstream. I’m already seeing cracks in the solid wall we put up to win on gay marriage. I’m seeing feminists and ethnic minorities sniping at each other. I’m seeing pacifists and near-pacifists indulging the entirely imaginary notion that we can be Ireland and respond to every crisis with nurses and bandages. The Democratic Party is in danger of doing its usual trick of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

    This thing is far from over. There are still hundreds of smaller “rights” battles to be won – and the GOP would stop that. There is still a deal to be made with Iran (we hope) to avoid a terrible war – and the GOP would stop that. There is still global warming, scientific research, infrastructure repair, aid to the poor both at home and abroad, there is still the need to fund Obamacare, we are not done, we are not ready for a victory parade which descends instantly into left on left rhetorical violence. There is still income inequality, a living wage, equal pay for women, a rational immigration policy, and if the Republicans win, nothing positive will be done.

    We must not be foolishly impatient or indulge in fantasy. Bernie Sanders is never going to be president. Go to his rallies, give him money, he’s a good man, but get this straight: Hillary can be elected, Bernie cannot. In the end we need Hillary’s Venn diagram to reach most but not all the way to Bernie, while still covering enough of the middle to reach 270 electoral votes.

    Look at the states we need to hold: Ohio, Florida, Virginia. Which of those will vote for a female candidate who looks like a peacenik? None. How about the borderline cases like North Carolina? Can we take NC with a lefty Hillary? No.

    That’s the battlefield. Don’t like it? Too bad, because that’s the battlefield whether Democrats like or not.

  21. michael reynolds says:

    @de stijl:

    Obama won in part by promising he would accelerate the drone war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. He said he’d get Osama Bin Laden. Liberals kind of forget all that.

    He won re-election despite the fact that he followed through big-time on the drone war, carried out an Afghan surge, launched an air war in Libya and did in fact get Bin Laden.

  22. de stijl says:

    Arguably, Obama won because there was a D after his name. No Republican could have won in 2008.

    But Obama beat Clinton for the nomination specifically because of Iraq. Clinton tried with the 3 AM Phone Call ad to paint him as the wimp and she failed. She was seen as either the hawk, or the person who voted with the neocons for craven political expediency in that post 9/11 era.

    Peacenik Obama beat Clinton and then he beat McCain.

  23. C. Clavin says:

    @de stijl:
    Wellll….he won because of he had opposed the mis-adventure in Iraq…which Clinton had supported.
    Reynolds is right, though…he also promised to escalate the drone war…which McCain said was foolish.

  24. de stijl says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Obama won in part by promising he would accelerate the drone war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. He said he’d get Osama Bin Laden. Liberals kind of forget all that.

    Clinton lost because of her AUMF and her Iraq Resolution votes.

    Of all the legitimate candidates in 2008, D or R, Obama was the “wimpiest.”

  25. Moosebreath says:

    @michael reynolds:

    “Obama won in part by promising he would accelerate the drone war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. He said he’d get Osama Bin Laden. Liberals kind of forget all that.”

    And because he said he would push harder in Afghanistan, showing he was not opposed to all wars.

  26. de stijl says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Reynolds is right, though…he also promised to escalate the drone war…which McCain said was foolish.

    Obama did say that. I don’t deny it.

    Reynolds is factual. But reynolds isn’t right. (if you get the distinction.)

    Obama won because he was the one who was the least likeliest to keep playing that 2003 tune.

    If you force rank Clinton, Obama, McCain, Giuliani, Huckabee, Thompson (Tommy or Fred), Romney, Keyes, and Tancredo by hawkishness, Obama is on the bottom by a mile. (Throw in Paul and you actually have an argument, but for different reasons.)

  27. C. Clavin says:

    @de stijl:
    He’s killed a shitload of people for a dove.

  28. humanoid.panda says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I’m already seeing cracks in the solid wall we put up to win on gay marriage. I’m seeing feminists and ethnic minorities sniping at each other. I’m seeing pacifists and near-pacifists indulging the entirely imaginary notion that we can be Ireland and respond to every crisis with nurses and bandages.

    I’m seeing Michael spending too much on the internet, where objects look appear bigger than they are in reality. In fact, the Democratic party was never more unified – even the peacenik candidate, Sanders, is not nearly pacifist as his supporters like to pretend..

  29. de stijl says:

    @C. Clavin:

    He’s killed a shitload of people for a dove.

    Think about the set of choices we had in 2008. Which guy or gal kills less people than Obama 2009 – today?

    Kucinich (no delegates) and Paul (16 whole delegates). Who else? Who keeps us out Libya? Who spins down Iraq and Afghanistan faster? Iran and Syria and ISIS and Yemen, how would the others have handled those?

    Of course he’s not a dove. He’s the American President FFS.

    But Obama won in 2008 because he seemed like he was the least likely to get us deeper into the same stupid crap we’ve been dealing with since 2002.

    Obama did not win because he wanted to escalate drone attacks, nor did he win because he thought Afghanistan was the “good” war. He was electable because he said those things, but he did not win because he said those things.

    Obama won because he was the guy who was the least like George W. Bush. That was the test in 2008. “Who is the least like Bush / Cheney? I’ll vote for that person.”

    reynolds premise is largely correct. As a rule, we don’t vote for doves and peacniks. (see Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis.) Except for 2008 where we chose the doviest / peacenikiest guy of the lot because Bush.

  30. dmichaelwells says:

    @michael reynolds: False premise. I will vote for HRC should she become the Dem candidate. Pushing HRC to be less bellicose doesn’t make her “weak.” Having her espouse more nuanced policies than “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” allows her to highlight the nonsensical belligerence of her opponents like Senator Graham. Ascribing a single issue to have determined each of the Dem losses since Humphrey is a gross oversimplification.

  31. michael reynolds says:

    @dmichaelwells:

    Pushing HRC to be less bellicose doesn’t make her “weak.”

    Oh? Then why did Mr. Obama feel the need to be bellicose in order to counter Hillary’s “Obambi” snark? He established his tough guy bona fides by talking about ramping up the war on terror and drone attacks in particular.

    Hillary is not bellicose, and at the moment the American people don’t want her to be. But we have 16 months to go. Should we suffer another attack the voters will be looking for a tough guy, and if she’s let herself be backed into playing peacenik, she’s done for.

    American pacifism died on December 7, 1941 and is in no danger of coming back. Look at every single contest since then. Truman drops the A bomb and wins. Adlai was a bloodless intellectual and lost to the war hero, Eisenhower. The war hero John K. Kennedy barely beat Nixon, and did it by inventing lies about Soviet missiles and actually portraying Nixon and the GOP as weak on defense.

    In 1968 the anti-war left, which was trying to push Humphrey to be overtly anti-war, gave us Nixon 1. Four years later the anti-war left gave us McGovern who – despite being himself an honest-to-God war hero – was the peace candidate and gave us Nixon 2.

    Flash forward to 1980. Jimmy Carter was seen as weak during the Iran hostage crisis and we got Reagan 1. Mondale came across to people as weak and we got Reagan 2. Mike Dukakis rode his tank and looked weak and we got George W. Bush.

    The anti-war left is like the Tea Party right – both sides looking for a True Scotsman – equally oblivious to the fact that Americans do not vote for the wings, they vote for the center. If the anti-war left manage to push Hillary their way, they’ll elect a Republican.

    We did not accidentally become the world’s sole superpower, the people have supported the project right along. We like being big and scary. We elect leaders who can look and act big and scary.

  32. anjin-san says:

    @de stijl:

    Obama won because he didn’t vote for the Iraq war.

    When Obama said he was going ofter Bin Laden come hell or high water in the 2008 debate, I believed him. Go back and watch the video. McCain was literally wringing his hands at the thought of offending Pakistan. Obama looked decisive and just a bit fierce.

  33. de stijl says:

    @anjin-san:

    I believed him too (and he carried through). He was electable because he said that in a fairly bad-ass manner. But he won because Clinton muffed her Iraq War votes.

    michael reynolds’ analysis is spot on; Americans don’t vote for the weakling, the wimp, the peacenik or the dove. Until 2008 when we did.

    Obama is President specifically because he did not join in with that 2002-2003 foolishness. That was decisive and fierce.

  34. de stijl says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Mike Dukakis rode his tank and looked weak and we got George W. Bush.

    Wuzza? My mind went to Gore v. Bush and the 5-4 SC decision that cannot be cited ever again because Scalia says “shut up”, that’s why. And how the hell does Dukakis play into this? And then, ahh – got ya, George H. W. Bush. Poppy.

  35. wr says:

    @michael reynolds: “We must not be foolishly impatient or indulge in fantasy. Bernie Sanders is never going to be president. Go to his rallies, give him money, he’s a good man, but get this straight: Hillary can be elected, Bernie cannot.”

    Sure, but he’s also not going to win the primary. And so I will happily vote for Bernie in the primary, and happily vote for Hillary in the general. And I suspect Hillary will be a better candidate and better president for having seen a lot of support for Sanders’ ideas — which, by the way, are not wacky left but solidly in the mainstream of what American say they want… They’re just not what the political and pundit classes want…

  36. wr says:

    @michael reynolds: “Obama won in part by promising he would accelerate the drone war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. He said he’d get Osama Bin Laden. Liberals kind of forget all that.”

    The cartoon liberals in your head do, certainly… Many of us in the real world remember quite clearly Obama saying “I am not opposed to all wars; I am opposed to dumb wars.”

    And we can all argue over which wars are dumb and which are not — but we don’t have to pretend that Obama was elected by people who believe he was a pacifist…

  37. wr says:

    @michael reynolds: “Hillary is not bellicose, and at the moment the American people don’t want her to be”

    I don’t understand where you’re getting this from. The big FP complaint from the left against Hillary is that she is TOO bellicose and TOO eager to engage.

    I do get your point that as the first woman she needs to come across as tough. But I’ve never heard anyone remotely credible calling her weak — too hawkish, yes.