In a GOP field full of hawks, it’s tough to establish yourself as a national security standout — even for the South Carolina senator and Air Force lawyer.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., entered the 2016 presidential race Monday as the GOP candidate with the most national-security experience. But even in a party that is counting on defense issues to help win the White House, the military attorney is a longshot.
“I am running for president of the United States because I am ready to be commander in chief on day one,” Graham said Monday in his hometown of Central, S.C. “I have got one simple message. I have more experience with our national security than any other candidate in this race. That includes you, Hillary.”
In his two decades in Congress, Graham has established himself as a leader of the party’s hawks through plum posts on four of Congress’s most powerful committees, countless codels to the Middle East, and frequent appearances on the Sunday shows. Throughout it all, he has continued to serve in the military. On Monday, the day he announced his presidential campaign, he retired after 33 years as an Air Force and Air National Guard lawyer. (He turns 60, the mandatory retirement age, next month.)
Graham’s plan to take the White House rests on his calculation that voters’ appetites for intervention are growing again, piqued by the advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the group’s beheadings of American hostages. So he has relentlessly pushed national security to the forefront of the 2016 campaigns. In particular, he has needled Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., by lumping him in with President Obama and his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and their alleged isolationist “retreat.”
At Graham’s campaign launch, held hours after Paul blocked the extension of provisions of the Patriot Act, his intended target was clear. “The Obama administration and some of my colleagues in Congress have substituted wishful thinking for sound national security strategy. Every day, the headlines attest to the failures of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy,” he said. “Those who believe we can disengage from the world at large and be safe by leading from behind — vote for someone else; I am not your man.”
But Paul isn’t the man Graham needs to beat — it’s the rest of the field, virtually interchangeable in their hawkish positions and thus representing a unique disadvantage for the most experienced national-security candidate. Graham is preaching to the choir with a dozen others already at the pulpit.
Which is why it was a miscalculation for Graham to fill his announcement speech with hellfire and brimstone: “Simply put, radical Islam is running wild. They have more safe havens, more money and capability and more weapons to strike our homeland than any time since 9/11.” The apocalyptic tones overshadowed his “simple message” of built-in leadership credentials and a compelling personal story.
The senator launched his campaign in tiny Central, within sight of the family restaurant and pool hall where he grew up. He lost his parents early on and was the first in his family to go to college, then law school. He joined the Air Force and did six years of active duty. Later, as a member of the Air Guard, he was called up during the first Gulf War and prepped servicemembers stateside for deployment. Until Monday, he continued to work as a military attorney, and retired at the rank of colonel.
Graham came into Congress with 1994’s “Republican Revolution,” becoming the first Republican representative in his district since 1877. Elected to the Senate in 2002, he was reelected in 2008 (getting more than a million votes the year President Obama swept into office, and breaking a South Carolina record) and again in the 2014 midterms.
He has established himself on four of the most powerful committees in the Senate: Armed Services, where he chairs the subcommittee on personnel and his close friend, fellow hawk and former Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, bangs the gavel; Budget and Appropriations, which between them control the Pentagon’s purse strings and set the spending agenda; and Judiciary, with one of the broadest jurisdictions of any committee.
Off-camera, Graham is known as a relatively hard-working, good-natured, moderate pragmatist who voted for immigration reform and against the government shutdown, supports closing Guantanamo, and lobbied hard for the contentious but bipartisan Iran deal review bill. He told reporters he cared more about getting a deal done than the politics or his own presidential ambitions. But on the 2016 stump, he sounds a lot like the GOP’s other firebrand fearmongerers.
In his speech Monday, both Grahams were on display. He offered an occasionally tempered note, talking about working in “partnership with others,” and saying, “It will require more than military might. The most powerful weapon in our arsenal isn’t a gun — it’s an idea. The terrorists are selling a glorious death — we must sell a hopeful life.” He repeatedly bashed Obama, but acknowledged that as commander in chief, he couldn’t promise troops that “dangers they confront will be less.”
Yet he also adopted a harsher tone on Iran, saying that Tehran “will trigger a nuclear arms race, making it more likely the people who aspire to genocide will have the most effective means to commit it.” By several hawkish metrics, Graham’s position is at the extreme. He wants to put 10,000-plus more American troops in Iraq and eventually Syria to defeat the Islamic State.
Yet it’s the more moderate Graham, far less likely to be heard on the campaign trail, who could deny his rivals the convenience of simply criticizing the president every time there’s an Islamic State setback by forcing them to specify what they would do differently.
The reality is that a sitting senator who enters the race after a dozen other candidates have spent months gobbling up staffers and donors — though he’s getting his own super PAC after speaking against money in politics for years, and counts casino magnate Sheldon Adelson as a supporter — has little chance of securing the nomination when he shows few signs he can win his own state. In an April Winthrop University poll of likely South Carolina presidential primary voters, 54.9 percent said they would not consider voting for Graham for president, and only 7 percent of respondents said they’d vote for him if the primary were held today, putting him fourth in his own state. More than 65 percent of respondents said he shouldn’t run for president.
Nationwide, he fares even worse. In a Friday Quinnipiac poll, Graham only garnered 1 percent support among Republicans and Republican-leaning voters. And this comes after an early May NBC News/WSJ poll found that twice as many Republicans as Democrats view terrorism and national security as the most important issues in 2016, by a 27 percent to 13 percent margin.
Graham may see his role in running as keeping the race focused on national security, though he may also be angling to join a ticket as vice president or win appointment as defense secretary.
What does it say about the GOP that one of the loudest voices on defense — a go-to talking head and mantle-bearer for the mainstream’s hawkish tradition — is such a long shot for the nomination? The Republican field has no deep bench of national security experts to draw on. Both parties — particularly the one outside the White House throwing stones for the past six-and-a-half years — need fresh faces and new ideas to face a changing global security landscape.