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The Go-to Senator

Lindsey Graham’s recipe for success

Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Extremely difficult? Ten elections? Toppling Graham ought to be a slam dunk for South Carolina conservatives. After his close friend and ally John McCain, he may be the most reviled Republican among the base. It’s not just that he’s been a high-profile supporter of comprehensive immigration reform and willing to give Obama a pass on liberal judges. On national security issues the famously hawkish Graham is a resolute opponent of the libertarian wing, which seeks less engagement. Last year when emerging Senate leaders like Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz joined Rand Paul’s talking filibuster in protest of the president’s drone program—the first galvanizing moment for conservatives since Obama’s reelection—-Graham took to the Senate floor to argue against his Republican colleagues’ position. 

It wasn’t the first time he had spoiled the GOP’s party. During the George W. Bush administration, Graham joined the bipartisan Gang of 14 that agreed to break a Democratic filibuster over Bush’s judicial nominees while staving off a Republican majority’s effort to change the Senate rules to weaken the minority. That cemented Graham’s image as someone more eager to compromise with Democrats than fight them. In short, he’s what right-wingers call a squish, and in deep-red South Carolina, no less. So why is it so hard for true conservatives to get the senator they deserve?

Graham protests that, for all his unorthodoxies, he is in line with the mainstream of South Carolina voters. What about the charge that he’s a Republican in name only, not a true believer? “If you look at my voting record and my approach to fiscal and social conservative issues, I’m, by any reasonable definition, conservative,” he says. “What I’m not is a person that rejects the idea of trying to solve the problem. And for some, it’s not enough to agree with them on the issue. You have to hate the other side. I’m not going to live my life hating. I don’t have to. To some, the only way to prove you’re conservative is just to tear the other people limb from limb. I can throw a punch, but I also can get something done.”

Graham’s lifetime rating by the American Conservative Union is 89 out of 100. He is one of the pro-life movement’s strongest allies in Congress, most recently as the author of a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation with certain exceptions. In the Obama era, Graham has voted against all of the major legislative efforts of the Democratic agenda, including the stimulus, the Dodd-Frank financial reform package, and Obamacare. When Graham was in the House of Representatives, he made a name for himself on C-SPAN as an incisive interrogator during the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton. More than a decade later, Graham has pushed forward the investigation into the Benghazi scandal. In October, he said he would use his privilege as a senator to hold up all of Obama’s nominations until the administration allowed witnesses to the fatal attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi in 2012 to testify before Congress.

On national security, Graham agrees there’s a lot of energy behind libertarianism in the GOP, but he sees that as all the more reason to stand firm on the idea that America ought to engage—sometimes militarily—in the Middle East and the broader world. “I still think the vast majority of us are in the Ronald Reagan camp of peace through strength,” he says. “But there’s this debate going on in the party, and I want to be part of that debate. It’s not bad to have an alternative view. I just want to make sure my side wins.” It helps that he’s one of the Senate’s authorities on national security issues, regularly briefing the Republican conference alongside John McCain. 

That’s another part of the story. Graham is also seen as a go-to guy around Congress. While known for his willingness to work with Democrats, he’s one of the most popular senators among Republicans. “He’s always stood out, and I think a lot of people appreciate that,” says McCain. Besides McCain, some of Graham’s closest friends in the Senate are Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Richard Burr of North Carolina, and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. 

Members of South Carolina’s House Republican delegation, all considerably more conservative than Graham, are fond of their senior senator, too. One of them is Trey Gowdy, who was first elected to the House in the Tea Party wave of 2010 after defeating a Republican incumbent whom Graham had supported. Gowdy is effusive with praise for Graham.

“He and his staff went beyond the call of duty to help the four freshmen of 2010,” Gowdy says. “He offers to help with no conditions. He doesn’t carry grudges.”

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