When South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham went wild in the Judiciary Committee on the day Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh testified, upping the ante on the judge’s own partisan rant, there was a lot of speculation about why Mr. Bipartisan Republican was sounding like a right-wing talk radio host, as Dick Polman notes:
Everyone in politics seems to have a theory: Steve Schmidt, the former Republican strategist, tweets that Graham “is a political careerist and an unequaled sycophant when it comes to finding favor with power.” Another Republican operative, who knows Graham well, tells me privately: “All of us have talked about this. He started drifting toward Trump when McCain got sick.”
Maybe he’s auditioning to succeed Jeff Sessions as a more pliable attorney general.Or maybe he’s simply Machiavellian in the extreme; as former Obama aide Tommy Vietor tweets, “When Obama first took office, (Graham) lived in Rahm Emanuel’s office,” referring to Obama’s first chief of staff. “He has no core beliefs. He just drifts in the political wind.”
Polman thinks the real explanation is “hiding in plain sight:” acutely aware of Donald Trump’s conquest of the GOP, and POTUS’ intense popularity among South Carolina Republicans, Graham is simply trying to head off a primary challenge when he runs for reelection in 2020. Before Graham’s manic performance on September 27, Lisa Miller noted his potential primary problem in a profile on the senior senator from the Palmetto State:
Graham’s political tightrope act looks increasingly precarious. He’s up for reelection in 2020, and right now his approval rating in South Carolina is at an all-time low, 41 percent, while Trump’s has remained about steady at 54 — a sign that Graham’s toggling between fealty and empty gestures of resistance might be backfiring at a time when the electorate continues to be fixated on ideological purity. In his state, GOP operatives are cheerfully compiling lists of candidates who might beat him in a primary. His prospective challengers this time are bigger fish, with better name recognition and the donors to match. Gowdy, who is retiring from Congress, tops everyone’s list, but he swears he won’t oppose his friend. (“I would not run against him if you guaranteed me I would win,” he says.) Other possibilities include Haley (though the consensus is that she has more national aspirations); Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget and another golfing partner of Trump’s; Jeff Duncan, who represents Graham’s old district in Congress; and Sanford. Already, a businessman named John Warren has tentatively tossed his hat into the ring. A self-made millionaire and former Marine, Warren represents a credible threat. (His bid for the GOP nomination for governor was derailed only after Trump threw his support to his opponent, Henry McMaster.)
Yes, Graham looked vulnerable in 2014, too, as the all-conquering Tea Party Movement drew a bead on the champion of comprehensive immigration reform and the unapologetic defender of the Senate’s bipartisan traditions. Graham got lucky that year thanks to a divided field of six challengers, none of whom had big money or backing. But as Miller says, Trump’s popularity in South Carolina is a problem for Graham:
Trumpists in South Carolina call their senior senator “Grahamnesty”; others prefer “Flimsy Graham.” Mention Graham’s legislative partners — Ted Kennedy, Chuck Schumer, and, most recently, Dick Durbin — to this group, who are far more partisan than pragmatic, and they become apoplectic.
Graham had been following a career-long pattern of independent posturing in public paired with sycophancy in private to the powers that be – whoever they happened to be. Hence the golf games with Trump, even as the senator now and then took issue with Trump’s policies towards Russia or immigrants. But the intensely polarizing Kavanaugh hearings gave Graham the chance to make an indelible public statement of fidelity to Trump, to conservatism, to the conservative party of Trump, and yes, to the white men of South Carolina with whom he defiantly identified himself at the beginning of his tirade. So he took it.
Once his flanks are covered back home, we may see Graham return to his old persona as the acerbically witty and unpredictable pol who is more partisan and vastly more subservient to the White House than his late amigo John McCain, but is a mini-maverick in his own right.