Two cheers for Lindsey Graham -- not conservative, but an indispensable Republican

September wasn’t a good month for traditional Republican foreign policy. Five out of the eight GOP members on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted against a resolution of military force against the Assad regime in Syria after it used chemical weapons on its own people.

Two of them were 2016 presidential hopefuls: Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, whose no votes confirmed that isolationism is now a force to be reckoned with in Republican politics. Yet on the other side of the debate was an old reliable voice in Lindsey Graham.


“It is inconvenient, it is hard, it is complicated, and it can be wearying. But there is no substitute for American leadership,” he told a lunchtime audience in his home state of South Carolina after the vote.

Up until President Obama acquiesced to a Russian-brokered Syrian arms deal, Graham and John McCain stood practically alone between the president and their party in calling for a military response to Assad’s use of weapons of mass destruction. The two are used to this by now. They are the Last Hawks.

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    When McCain finally leaves the Senate, presumably when his term ends in 2017, Graham will stand alone as the most experienced statesman in the Republican Party advocating for America’s continued engagement in the world.

    The fact that Graham is up for reelection in 2014 and faces a primary fight makes it all the more interesting. What are conservatives to do about an incumbent Senator who has supported cap and trade, higher taxes, comprehensive immigration reform, and has been dismissive of the Tea Party?

    That Lindsey Graham is best summed up by the cynical advice he once gave to another moderate Senator, George LeMieux of Florida, who approached him eager to be part of the cap and trade deal. “Let me teach you something about this town,” Graham replied to his colleague. “You can’t come that easy.”

    Then there’s the other Lindsey Graham, a warrior with a surprising conservative streak that comports with his approach to foreign policy. In November, Graham became the lead Senate sponsor of the House-passed bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

    “At twenty weeks, mothers are encouraged to speak and sing as the baby can recognize the voice of the mother,” Graham said.” “The question for the American people is, ‘Should we be silent when it comes to protecting these unborn children entering the sixth month of pregnancy?’” Pro-life groups were gratified that someone had finally taken up their cause in the U.S. Senate.

    While no one would ever compare him to Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz (and he would hate that), Graham is a hardliner when he wants to be. Harry Reid’s decision to invoke the nuclear option and end the Senate filibuster of nominations likely means that Graham – a disciple of Senate decorum – will agitate for new ways to stick it to Democrats.

    Should he join McCain, Rubio, and other Senate Republicans in voting against Janet Yellen to lead the Federal Reserve – a nomination he had previously threated to filibuster for the sake of an inquiry into the Benghazi catastrophe – he will gain another feather in his cap before South Carolina conservatives.

    Graham has a handful of Republican opponents taking him on, two of the leading names being Nancy Mace and Lee Bright. Mace became the first woman to graduate from the Citadel and has since worked as a political consultant in the state.

    Bright, a senator from the upstate, is one of those conservatives who goes a little too far sometimes (he held up a gun ban for the mentally ill in the last legislative session). Both are young and may have a bright future in South Carolina electoral politics. Just not against Lindsey Graham.

    Like any incumbent with a successful track record, Graham has plenty of money. One veteran political operative in the state GOP likened his $9 million campaign war chest to having $100 million to run on in New York.  An overlooked aspect of Jim DeMint’s departure from the Senate to run the Heritage Foundation is that DeMint, who while in the Senate intervened to support Republican primary insurgents, won’t loom over this race.

    In a state with its fair share of political flameouts – Governor Nikki Haley has been something of a disappointment, predecessor Mark Sanford took himself out of a potential presidential run with his lost weekend in Argentina – Graham has made good on the potential that everyone first saw in him in his first national exposure as one of the prosecution managers in President Clinton’s impeachment trial.

    He’s maintained it through the years in South Carolina by outworking everyone in engaging voters. That’s why you can bet that in 2014 Palmetto State conservatives used to voting for their own will reelect their indispensable U.S. senator.