Lindsey Graham is no one’s idea of a hot presidential candidate. Pulling in 1 percent support in the mid-February CNN/ORC International poll of prospective Republican nominees, he’s at the very bottom, alongside Carly Fiorina and Bobby Jindal. But South Carolina’s senior senator has an edge that the rest of 2016’s prospective Republican candidates lacks: the authority to clean up after eight years of Obama-made U.S. foreign policy.
The name of Graham’s testing-the-waters presidential committee, Security Through Strength, is a summation of his worldview. Alongside his mentor John McCain, Graham has been the most prominent critic of the White House’s rapprochement with Syria and Iran, and his foot-dragging in the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Graham’s often lonely crusade of hammering the president as disengaged and weak is proving remarkably prescient. The Obama Administration’s refusal to acknowledge the epidemic of ISIS and Al Qaeda-made violence as spawning from radical Islam has turned out the lights on its post-Bush foreign policy credibility. The CNN poll mentioned above finds that 57 percent of voters disapprove of the job Obama is doing on foreign affairs, a 15-point increase from two years ago. This is in the context of a recent modest uptick in the president’s overall approval rating.
Graham has been a hawk through thick and thin, as rivals for the Republican nomination have wobbled on intervening abroad, like in Syria in 2013, or stayed silent on global crises altogether. Yet his years of travel nurturing diplomatic contacts and his passionate stance against alleged torture perpetrated by the CIA round out the edges. Graham would come to the Oval Office easily the most prepared for the job on the world stage since George H.W. Bush.
Back home in South Carolina, Graham’s possible presidential run is viewed with bemusement by party leaders, most of whom are clueless to the concept of a single-issue campaign. But Graham is leading in a recent NBC News poll taken in the state, beating Jeb Bush, 17 to 15 percent. In 20 years of electoral politics, he’s never had a close general election, and he’s worked hard to woo voters and craft ties with conservatives who have been at odds with him on issues like the environment and immigration. In Washington, Graham recently pleased pro-life advocates by introducing a bill to outlaw abortions after 20 weeks.
But foreign policy is always center stage for Graham. His platform would pledge to retake Mosul and other parts of Iraq and Syria back from ISIS control, using 10,000 or so Special Forces and intelligence gathering troops to bolster the Iraqi government and Free Syrian Army. He would work on bringing regime change to Syria in concert with the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of which are desperate to take down Bashar al-Assad after years of Obama forbearance. Israel would be the highest-profile bilateral upgrade in a Graham White House, getting unequivocal support to defend itself against Hamas and other opponents.
Republicans have talked for years about rolling back the damage done to the country by President Obama. Graham’s gambit is to offer them the best chance to do that on foreign policy. He would be the post-Nobel Peace Prize president, devoting himself to remaking American power in a dangerous world. That by itself will probably not be enough to win the nomination: Graham would need help from his rivals imploding and a shift in emphasis on the economy to national security by Republican voters. But Graham doesn’t need to win to accomplish his goal. The last prominent candidate to run a single-issue campaign for president, Steve Forbes on tax reform in 1996, showed the success it can lead to. Graham has a better chance of making an impact by running for president than sticking to the Senate over the next year. That fact enough is good reason for him to shrug off his 1 percent support in the polls.
Rich Danker is a Washington-based political consultant. He managed the 2014 campaign of Jeff Bell, the Republican U.S. Senate nominee in New Jersey.