Less than a week before Election Day 2014, Democrats in South Carolina finally got what they’ve long been waiting for: proof that dirt on Senator Lindsey Graham does, indeed, exist. No one expected it to affect his re-election, but the glimpse into Graham’s unscripted life was noteworthy nonetheless. The big secret? That the venerable senator from South Carolina apparently has his eye on bigger and better things.
The public may or may not be inclined to take Graham at his word when he says that he was just being “earthy” when he told a group of white males in Charleston recently that “I’m trying to help you with your tax status. I’m sorry the government’s so f—ed up. If I get to be president, white men in male-only clubs are going to do great in my presidency.”
According to the tape provided to CNN by “two separate South Carolina Democrats,” his audience laughed. The rest of South Carolina did too — at the idea of a President Lindsey Graham.
Indeed, the real takeaway from Grahamgate (can I make that a thing?) isn’t so much the joke about helping rich white, Southern men, it’s the context in which the joke was offered: “in my presidency.” There are few reasons why a seasoned politician like Lindsey Graham would make such a jest. Probably all of them are rooted in equal parts hubris and deep-seated ambition.
Still, it’s worth taking time to pause. We are, after all, talking about the office of the American Presidency, here, the position of Commander in Chief.
That Graham is deplored by every facet of the Palmetto State’s conservative base is simultaneously one of politics’ best known secrets and its most impenetrable mysteries.
In this election cycle, for instance, there was no shortage of primary challengers lining up to take on Graham. Yet none of them was able to convince Republican voters in the Southeast’s most crimson hub of conservatism to dump the moderate incumbent. Graham swept the primary, and then swept the general, tape or no tape.
But that doesn’t mean his road to the presidency will be paved with Palmetto leaves. “South Carolinians may reelect him grudgingly to the U.S. Senate in 2014,” says South Carolina political blogger Will Folks, “but he’s toast in six years—assuming he hasn’t destroyed the Republic by then.”
Since 2008 and the near anointment of Senator John McCain—South Carolina, admittedly, helped plenty with that—the conservative electorate has swayed more and more away from interventionist foreign policy, Graham’s bailiwick. Thus, a unified approach to GOP foreign policy in 2016 seems about as likely as a southern snowstorm on Christmas Day (no matter how much we may hope for both).
In one corner is Sen. Rand Paul’s consistent rejection of hawkishness, which drove McCain to proclaim that a contest between the Kentuckian and Hillary Clinton would be a “tough choice.” Still, Paul was joined by the likes of Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in voting against taking action in Syria last year. Guess where Graham stood?
But that was so 2013. Vladimir Putin and ISIS have changed the calculus for some, including Cruz, who has recently been found gracing the airwaves with talk about the need for strong American leadership abroad. “The Republican flirtation with dovish noninterventionism is over. It wasn’t much of a fling,” writes the Weekly Standard’s Stephen F. Hayes.
Even if we admit, though, that some of those floored by President Barack Obama’s foreign policy might be back in a hawkish state of mind, that doesn’t mean their appetite is for Graham’s specific views.
To recap recent events: in 2010, Senator Graham called for a pre-emptive strike against Iran. In 2013, he implored his colleagues to get behind President Obama’s targeted killing program. That same year, Graham told South Carolinians that if the U.S. did not intervene in Syria, they could expect war to come “in the belly of a ship in the Charleston or New York Harbor.” And when news broke about the surveillance programs at the NSA, which many critics argue infringed on civil liberties, Graham stood on the Senate floor to say he was “glad” the NSA was gathering records.
Where does this leave Graham and his presidential ambitions? We’ll see where the wind blows over the next two years. But to the senator I would say this: good luck taking your message beyond the friendly avenues of Charleston and Columbia.
Some will undoubtedly say stranger things have happened. I wouldn’t be so sure.