Poor Lindsey Graham; he’s facing a legitimate—and downright tough—challenge for his seat in the U.S. Senate. The Republican senior senator from South Carolina recently bemoaned on a Fox News interview, “I’m being killed financially. This money is because they hate my guts.”
Graham’s Democratic opponent, Jaime Harrison, has raised $3.5 million in campaign support.
Why might Graham, a three-term senator, be facing this unfamiliar uphill battle? Why do so many South Carolinians hate his guts?
Loyalty: The Absent Attribute
Graham is a conservative in a solidly conservative state; he should cruise to victory. In 2002 he gained the senate seat by a 10-point margin, then he won by a nearly 16-point margin in 2008, and by 10 points again in 2014. Yet, in this crucial election cycle, polls show Graham tied with Harrison, his Democratic rival. What happened? Might Graham’s slide be tied to his gross miscalculations on the character issue?
If Graham assumed that he—like his new guru, Donald Trump—has a super-slick Teflon coating that shields him from any and all blunders, he appears to be horribly mistaken. In the merciless world of American politics Lindsey Graham is no apex predator; he’s a scavenger, a little remora fish that clings to a big, strong shark and feeds from its scraps.
Like a remora, Lindsey Graham cannot survive long on his own. That’s always been the case. During the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, Congressman Graham met and struck up a friendship with Arizona’s John McCain, the notorious Republican “maverick” of the U.S. Senate. McCain carried the young congressman along to national notoriety and into the senate. The pair of GOP senators then partnered with Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman to form “the three amigos,” a trio that worked across party lines to not only pass legislation, but also to model political civility.
Graham seemed to truly admire McCain as his mentor. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he shared his displeasure at candidate Trump’s disparaging remarks about Senator McCain, especially at Trump’s implication that McCain was a loser for “getting caught” and spending years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. As nearly everyone knows by now, during the 2015-16 presidential campaign, Graham labeled Donald Trump “a kook.” He called Trump “crazy” and said he was “not fit to be president.”
But then Trump won the presidency and the little remora began to look for a new host to attach himself to. It was clear by then that his longtime host was ill—probably mortally ill. The little remora’s self-preservation instinct trumped any loyalty to his dying host. It was time to move on.
From McCain Maverick to Trump Toady
By December of 2017, Graham had made a mind-blowing 180-reversal, declaring, “What concerns me about the American press is this endless, endless attempt to label the guy some kind of kook not fit to be president.” Really? Blame the press?
Nine months after Graham’s bizarre self-contradiction about President Trump, Senator McCain lost his battle with cancer. Despite Graham’s brief public display of sorrow, by then his transfer of loyalty to the man who labeled his former mentor a “loser” was complete. No turning back. The little remora needed the new shark’s scraps. It was imperative that he prove, beyond any doubt, that his devotion—and praise—had been fully re-allocated.
Political Power Over Personal Principles
The senator had locked into his chosen course: Trump and Trumpism. From that point forward, Graham’s gamble was on voters’ infatuation with his new host shark. Principles be damned. As long as voters continued to feed the shark, scraps would fall to him.
So now, as chair of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee—and faced with overseeing the confirmation of a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—Graham finds himself in an untenable situation. He’d openly, publicly abandoned the role of principled maverick he could have clung to following the passing of his maverick mentor.
If the little remora retained any principles, he’d honor this pledge he made in 2016: “I want you to use my words against me. If there’s a Republican president in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said let’s let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination.” Had he chosen maverick over toady, he could have honored that 2016 pledge.
But, having abandoned principles, Graham now says, “Chuck Schumer and his friends in the liberal media conspired to destroy the life of Brett Kavanaugh and hold that Supreme Court seat open. In light of these two events, I will support President @realDonaldTrump in any effort to move forward regarding the recent vacancy created by the passing of Justice Ginsburg.”
Graham’s 2016 declaration about filling a Supreme Court vacancy included no qualifications. But adding after-the-fact disclaimers to backtrack on previous promises is standard fare for folks who choose power over principles.
The Price of Shortsighted Pragmatism
Like so many other Republicans, Lindsey Graham’s public assessment of Donald Trump began to change following the surprising outcome of the 2016 election. The choice for anti-Trump Republicans was between a firm, fixed, principled stand or self-serving pragmatism. Most—Graham included—chose the latter.
That choice put Graham in the awkward position of having to brazenly backtrack on an unequivocal promise to “let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination.” Graham put all his eggs in the Trump basket, so he had no choice but to backpedal on that earlier statement about letting the next president choose. And that hypocritical reversal could—likely will—cost Graham the election. Such is the price of a shortsighted choice of pragmatism and influence over principles and integrity.