Lindsey Graham On Tea Party: 'Just Unsustainable,' No 'Coherent Vision,' Will 'Die Out'

Under the Obama administration, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has spent much of his time playing the role of the go-to yet mercurial Republican negotiator. It's a function previously carried out by his mentor, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and one that can exact a taxing political cost (see McCain's inability to rally conservatives in 2008 and his subsequent trek rightward during his own reelection campaign).

In a just-published New York Times magazine profile, Graham seems to revel in the part. The senator, who has been censured by conservatives in his home state, fully cops to enjoying the political spotlight on testy legislative matters, whether detention policy, immigration reform, or climate change legislation. He also mocks his Tea Party detractors as having no long-term vision or prospects for political viability. He openly touts the closeness of his relationship to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and even acknowledges the cynicism of McCain's new, non-maverick label.

Penned by Robert Draper -- who wrote some of the more entertaining narratives from the 2008 campaign trail -- the whole piece is worth a read (Draper even broaches the gay rumors that have followed Graham for years). But here are some of the relevant parts.


In years past, Graham's deal-making forays typically featured his close friend, Senator John McCain of Arizona, as the frontman. Nowadays McCain has shucked his maverick ways in order to court his state's G.O.P. primary voters, while Graham's reflexive displays of bipartisanship have made him something of a scourge among South Carolina Tea Partiers. Harry Kibler fingered Graham as major prey in Kibler's "RINO hunt" (Republicans in Name Only). The South Carolina chapter of Resist.net warns constituents that Graham "is up to his old reach-across-the-aisle tricks again!" Among the conservative activists who have called for censuring Graham as a quisling of the right is the state's G.O.P. gubernatorial nominee and Tea Party favorite, Nikki Haley.

"Everything I'm doing now in terms of talking about climate, talking about immigration, talking about Gitmo is completely opposite of where the Tea Party movement's at," Graham said as Cato drove him to the city of Greenwood, where he was to give a commencement address at Lander University later that morning. On four occasions, Graham met with Tea Party groups. The first, in his Senate office, was "very, very contentious," he recalled. During a later meeting, in Charleston, Graham said he challenged them: " 'What do you want to do? You take back your country -- and do what with it?' . . . Everybody went from being kind of hostile to just dead silent."

In a previous conversation, Graham told me: "The problem with the Tea Party, I think it's just unsustainable because they can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country. It will die out." Now he said, in a tone of casual lament: "We don't have a lot of Reagan-type leaders in our party. Remember Ronald Reagan Democrats? I want a Republican that can attract Democrats." Chortling, he added, "Ronald Reagan would have a hard time getting elected as a Republican today."


The White House logs do not record visits paid by U.S. senators. According to his office's records, however, Lindsey Graham has been to the West Wing 19 times since Barack Obama became president. When I asked the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, if any other Republican senator was so frequent a guest, he thought for a moment before responding, rather doubtfully, "Maybe Susan Collins."

Emanuel went on to say: "He's willing to work on more things than the others. Lindsey, to his credit, has a small-government vision that's out of fashion with his party, which stands for no government. . . . He's one of the last big voices to give that vision intellectual energy."


"My God, look what I'm involved in!" he said. "By default, if for no other reason. How do you close Gitmo without working with me now? How do you do immigration?" He added: "What if I walked away from climate change tomorrow? . . . You know, all politicians like to be thought of in their own mind as somebody special. I'm past that now. I'm a little worried. This is not healthy for the country. It's really not."


I observed that if this conversation about how to resolve tough issues were taking place in 2006, I would likely be having it not with Graham but with his friend and legislative mentor, John McCain. "Totally agree," he responded. "I mean, I was the wingman, O.K.?" But, he acknowledged, things are different now: "John's got a primary. He's got to focus on getting re-elected. I don't want my friend to get beat."


During a South Carolina Tea Party rally this spring, one speaker created an uproar by postulating that Graham supported a guest-worker program out of fear that the Democrats might otherwise expose his homosexuality. (Graham smirked when I brought this up. "Like maybe I'm having a clandestine affair with Ricky Martin," he said. "I know it's really gonna upset a lot of gay men -- I'm sure hundreds of 'em are gonna be jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge -- but I ain't available. I ain't gay. Sorry."