Fine, the headline’s an exaggeration, but watch the clip below from his presidential announcement this morning. It’s received wisdom that Graham is running because hawks want a heat-seeking missile in the debates who’ll happily blow up Rand Paul. And yeah, no doubt Graham will relish his chances to call the great libertarian hope a coward and a weakling in front of the country. The money lines from his speech this morning, though, have to do with him being ready on day one to defend the country and having more natsec experience than anyone else in the race. That’s not a shot at Paul; in hawks’ eyes, Paul wouldn’t be ready if he served a thousand years in the Senate. The experience argument is a shot at the other hawks running, the most prominent of whom is the young but untested Rubio. Without Graham in the race, he’s the most ostentatious interventionist in the field. With Graham in the race, he’s the guy whose short tenure in the Senate will be thrown in his face repeatedly on foreign policy.
Graham and his buddy McCain haven’t been shy about noting Rubio’s inexperience either. Here’s what they told Steve Hayes last October:
I asked Graham about Rubio. Hasn’t he been making many of the arguments you’d be likely to make? Graham wasn’t impressed. “He’s a good guy, but after doing immigration with him—we don’t need another young guy not quite ready,” said Graham. “He’s no Obama by any means, but he’s so afraid of the right, and I’ve let that go.”
McCain likes what he sees in the emerging GOP field, but acknowledges that he’s told Graham to think about running. “I’ve strongly encouraged him to give it a look. I think Lindsey has vast and deep experience on these issues that very few others have. I happen to like a lot of these guys—I like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie. Ted Cruz has gone out of his way to tell people how much he agrees with me on national security.” And Rubio?
“He’s articulate, intelligent, and has all the right instincts. He doesn’t have the background that Lindsey does, but he’s probably as articulate as anyone in our party. I’ve watched him carefully on the Foreign Relations Committee—he’s excellent. Very impressive.”
If, as everyone suspects, Graham and McCain care chiefly about getting a GOP superhawk elected president rather than trying and failing miserably to get Lindsey Graham elected president then it’s arguably insane for Graham to be running at all. Rubio should be their guy. Or, if they’re convinced that he’s too young, someone like Chris Christie or even Jeb Bush would suffice. Having Graham jump in does Rand Paul a favor by splitting the hawkish vote, especially in South Carolina, a state Rubio’s already invested in heavily and is eyeing as a key victory on the road to his Florida death match with Bush. If Graham’s still in the race when South Carolina votes, he could singlehandedly torpedo Rubio there by pulling key hawkish votes that Rubio needs for a close victory. Some hawks on Twitter claimed this morning that that’s nothing to worry about since Graham will surely drop out after he finishes at the back of the pack in Iowa and New Hampshire, but I dunno. South Carolina’s the state where everybody expects him to matter; dropping out before then would be a bit like Jeb dropping out before Florida. His endorsement will be coveted whether he runs or not, given his influence back home, and it’s hard to imagine him dragging a candidate like Rubio even further towards hawkishness by getting in given how far Rubio already is. Even if he did, it would prove that he’s running at least as much to influence the interventionists in the field as to take down Paul. All in all, he may have taken the plunge for legit ego reasons — namely, that he and he alone in this field of very hawkish candidates (Paul excepted) is hawkish enough to be president and thus he has no choice but to make the attempt. Even if that means sabotaging the other contenders who’d be most acceptable to him and McCain.