Joel Gehrke’s point is simple but penetrating. Graham’s no more likely than, say, Peter King or John Bolton to win the nomination himself, but he has something they don’t have. Namely, a lot of sway in what’ll probably be the most important state in deciding the next Republican nominee for president.
In a 2016 field crowded with at least half a dozen credible candidates, South Carolina operatives say, Graham’s worst-case scenario could be getting to play kingmaker for the eventual Republican nominee. “If we have three candidates, hell no; if we have seven, absolutely,” says one in-state consultant. A stronger showing could put him in line to replace John Kerry at the State Department if Republicans retake the White House…
On stage, Graham will pick a fight with President Obama and with Republicans whom he regards as having a “fortress America” strategy for national defense.
“It’s not a foil to any particular opponent,” Graham says when asked if he has Rand Paul in mind. “It is a rejection of an idea that manifests itself in libertarianism sometimes and sometimes in a hybrid between libertarianism and a traditional conservative approach. There are many people in my party who are not libertarians who are perfectly okay with sequestration.”…
“If the Republicans win the White House, Lindsey Graham will have his choice of being Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State, if he does it right,” Dawson says.
Personally, I’d love to have someone in the cabinet who says things like “Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war,” and who cheerily endorses censoring Americans’ mail if it’ll aid U.S. counterterrorism. Let’s make him Attorney General and hand him subpoena power.
Gehrke imagines two scenarios in South Carolina. One is a replay of 2008, in which Fred Thompson helped McCain win a squeaker by pulling enough social conservative votes from Mike Huckabee to deny Huck the victory. Graham might be good for, say, 10-15 percent of the vote in SC, a margin that won’t be enough to win but might be enough to prevent a candidate he dislikes from winning. The problem with that scenario, though, is that Graham’s more likely to pull votes from candidates he supports than candidates he opposes. South Carolinians who vote for him will probably be voting for his foreign policy, which means they won’t be voting for similarly hawkish but more credible candidates like, say, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Who benefits from that? Right — Rand Paul, the guy Graham is ostensibly trying to block from the nomination. Graham might be a useful club against Paul at the debates, but the longer he stays in the race sucking up votes from Paul’s hawkish first-tier rivals, the more likely a Paul nomination becomes.
It’s the other scenario that’s more plausible. The boldface quote in Gehrke’s piece is true: If Iowa and New Hampshire fail to winnow the field down to two or three frontrunners for the nomination, leaving us with a situation a la 2008 where five or six guys are still in the mix in South Carolina, Graham could be influential in boosting one of them by dropping out and endorsing that man. That’s especially true if the Iowa and New Hampshire winners are fringier types like Huckabee and Paul; in that case, mainstream conservatives will be desperate for South Carolina to choose someone more electable — Bush, Walker, Rubio, whoever — and hand that guy a win to make it a three-way race. Whomever Graham decides to support will get a boost in name recognition and probably some help from his political allies in SC. But … whom would he choose? The obvious best match for him in the field is Rubio: They’re Senate colleagues, both famously interventionist, and both amnesty fans who worked on the Gang of Eight together. (Rubio’s also the best match for Mitt Romney, I think, which means he could have multiple powerful patrons within the GOP helping to elevate his candidacy early on.) Graham sounded surprisingly lukewarm about Rubio in an interview last October, though: “He’s a good guy, but after doing immigration with him—we don’t need another young guy not quite ready. He’s no Obama by any means, but he’s so afraid of the right, and I’ve let that go.” That makes me think he’d lean towards pro-amnesty fellow traveler Jeb Bush, unless Rubio scrambles and ingratiates himself with Graham over the next few months. Expect some ass-kissing from Team Marco and lockstep voting from Rubio with Graham on foreign policy for the rest of the year.
Exit question: How does the idea grab you of Lindsey Graham informally crowning Jeb Bush the GOP’s new nominee? Does it grab you enough to stay home in November 2016?