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Sen. Lindsey Graham breaks everyone's rules

Lovable Loser

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Regardless of what you see in the movies, the real bad boy in high school never gets the girl. The real bad boy gets busted with a flask in his locker. He gets roughed up so bad after hustling a game of pool that his mother can't even recognize that jagged protrusion that used to be a nose. He has a classic Mustang — still collecting dust on cinder blocks. Frankly, he just can't catch a break.

In the face of a progressive rout in 2008, some Republicans are itching for a fight. They're standing in the schoolyard shadows, sharpening their knives (well, their 16th century pitchforks). They scrawl words like "death panels" and "policy czars" on the bathroom walls. They use phrases like "in exile" and "held hostage" to describe this school year.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham is a real bad boy. He's challenging the administration on troop levels, healthcare, and Guantanamo, thus dodging sharp elbows from the liberals in the lunch line. But he's also searching for compromise when possible, willing to accept conservative morsels in larger Democratic bills. And that's got his own party ready to push him into the homecoming bonfire.

This was most recently evident in the furor over Graham's deal with John Kerry, who could have been cast as the Prince of Darkness in Oh God, You Devil if George Burns had been much taller and carried a bottle of Heinz ketchup instead of a cigar. The two senators shared credit for an October New York Times opinion piece that included a little bit of something for everybody on environmental reform.

It was an effort to reach consensus, not conflict. And it's that pragmatism in the face of a Democratic majority that suggests Lindsey Graham isn't going to Washington to battle for conservative principles (regardless of whether they're justified or antiquated). He's just trying to get wheels for his Mustang, dude.

Whatever It Takes To Fit In

If there's one thing Graham knows how to do, it's spout off the sound bites that will make headlines.

Last week, Graham was giving Attorney General Eric Holder hell for his decision to try suspected 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court in New York. The move starts the ball rolling on a campaign promise by President Barack Obama to clean out Guantanamo Bay. Graham argued that this will criminalize the war.

"We're making bad history here," he said. And that's the headline Fox News went with.

The week before that, Graham was assessing the viability of a House-approved healthcare reform bill, which included a public option for some uninsured people.

"The House bill is dead on arrival in the Senate," he said on Face the Nation. We're not sure if he was making the life-or-death pun intentionally, but it worked and got picked up by other news outlets and blogs.

What's not in the headline, but still important to note, is what else he said. In the terror trial hearing in the Senate, Graham went on to accuse Holder of having a "pre-9/11" mentality. In the healthcare conversation, he followed his D.O.A. jab by claiming that the House proposal was "a bill written by liberals for liberals."

These are not comments for the moderate middle; it's a tasty treat for right-wing Republicans still stewing over the climate change op-ed, which they see as the final betrayal from a Fairweather Johnson.

But Graham's effort at flexing his conservative muscles seems to be too little too late. At a meeting on Nov. 9 of the Charleston County Republican Party Executive Committee, members voted overwhelmingly to censure Graham for a list of reasons, all of which can be considered abuses by fellow conservatives.

The list is kind of long, but it leads with the energy reform bill and Graham's support for a cap and trade program — which would limit harmful emissions from power plants, but allows businesses to sell the difference between the amount they use and the maximum limit, thus encouraging businesses to reduce emissions.

The problem is that there's a healthy number within the GOP that isn't even sure mankind is poisoning the environment with toxic chemicals. They say the proposal is a job killer and will increase energy bills significantly.

And that's not all. They're also mad that the senior senator voted in favor of government bailouts for financial institutions, and his support for immigration reform, including Graham's emotional suggestion that he was going to "tell the bigots to shut up."

And then there's his general desire to find workable solutions with Democrats willing to work across the aisle.

"In the name of bipartisanship, (Graham) continues to weaken the Republican brand and tarnish the ideals of freedom, rule of law, and fiscal conservatism," the censure reads.

Crammed In A Locker

The vote wasn't quite unanimous, but the decision by local Republicans to censure Graham went national with stories from the New York Times and elsewhere. Flashy "grassroots" organizations funded by lobbyists and big oil corporations have pumped a lot of money into radio and TV ads, as well as touring hot-air balloon rides. But the decision by the Charleston Republicans is a clear sign that folks on the ground and, more importantly, in the voting booths, don't like what they're hearing from their senior senator.

The vote signals a disconnect between voters and Graham regarding staunch GOP priorities, says Charleston Republican Party Chairwoman Lin Bennett.

"There's a level of frustration that has been out there for a while," she says. "These people wake up every day and see something changing."

They appreciate his strong stance on healthcare and troop levels, but the other issues are too important to ignore.

And the animosity is boiling over from both sides. In an outburst captured on YouTube, one town hall audience member in Greenville called the senator a traitor for his effort at an energy compromise with John Kerry. The same attitude was evident at a Citadel town hall meeting in September.

In light of the recent healthcare debate, an audience member asked why the meeting was being held at the Citadel instead of nearby hospitals. Graham, who was in the midst of trying to strong-arm the president into sending more troops to Afghanistan, picked the Citadel to spotlight military service. But his response wasn't so artful.

"I decided to come to the Citadel, and I'm the senator," Graham said. "And I'm going to be the senator for five more years."

The second part was slightly muffled by a man shouting that Graham just lost his vote.

"For Pete's sake," Bennett says regarding the exchange, "these are the people who elected you."

Or are they? Bennett says Graham's strong wins in 2008 were due to moderates and Democrats crossing party lines to support Graham in the primary against Buddy Witherspoon and again in the general election against the more conservative Bob Conley, who ran as a Democrat.

It's likely there's some truth to that, but not to the extent that it would tip the election. Graham's loss of support likely has more to do with the party's move to the right in the past year.

Oh, and putting your name after "By John Kerry and" in the New York Times doesn't help either.

Rule: No Caps In Class

Republicans upset over Graham's cap and trade support overlook two important points.

The first is that Graham didn't give up the farm. Underneath the nod to cap and trade were progressive concessions to offshore energy exploration and increased nuclear energy production — two large sticking points for some environmentalists, but essential to any bill that would get Graham's vote.

The other important point is that his support for cap and trade is nothing new. Throughout the presidential campaign last year, Graham went all across the country, pledging how he and his good friend Sen. John McCain would support a cap and trade plan. Even then, it was old news, as Graham had spoken previously about the trip he and McCain took in 2005 to see the real effect of climate change on polar ice habitats.

McCain talked about that trip during a climate change forum in June 2006, rattling off first-hand findings, including the impact on hunters in the northernmost parts of Alaska.

"Now when the sea does freeze over, it is slushy, sometimes not thick enough to allow the native people to venture out onto it for their traditional hunts," he said. "As long as the natives can remember, they have engaged in these activities, and now they must stop not because they choose to, but because warming temperatures are making it simply impossible."

McCain also addressed the arguments now banded about by Charleston Republicans and other Graham opponents — that man's role in global warming comes from fuzzy math.

"Given the high stakes involved — the future of our children and our grandchildren, not to mention the future of the planet as we inherited it — which approach are you willing to bet on?" McCain asked. "We don't want our children to ever have to ask the question, 'Did they even care?'"

So, why the indignation now over Graham's cap and trade support? The answer lies in the 60 votes necessary to avoid legislative stalling tactics. Democrats have 60 votes, but moderates in their own party mean any GOP support could be essential. Earlier this year, Graham riled conservatives after lending his vote to Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor. Bennett says his vote in that case was troubling, but it didn't tip the scales.

After the healthcare debate finds some sort of solution, environmental reform is likely next on the agenda. Graham's leadership role in shaping this effort could offer some cushioning for other moderate Republicans and even moderate Democrats.

Media campaigns admonishing the senator for his stand are a wake-up call for Graham. More than that, they're a warning to other moderate Congressmen that the bogeyman is watching, and he has TV commercial firms on retainer.

The best way to understand the argument to censure Graham comes from Bennett's suggestion that a more palatable effort from Graham would have been to craft an alternative energy reform bill in opposition to Kerry's larger progressive pitch. A similar move has been made by South Carolina's other senator, Jim DeMint, who has offered a conservative healthcare reform bill instead of finding room for smaller conservative victories in the larger Democratic bill.

As Graham told the Citadel town hall crowd in September, that's just not how he rolls. He has witnessed the obstructionism from both parties in the past on Social Security and immigration reforms.

"What I'm going to do is challenge this country to make some hard decisions," he said. "And when you don't get everything you want, that's called progress."

As is the case for all real bad boys, the crowd did not go wild.


Why We're Crushing on Lindsey Graham

He was a thoughtful, leading voice in the Sotomayor hearings
From the Washington Post: "Whenever the South Carolinian spoke during Sotomayor's four days of confirmation hearings, senators stopped fiddling with notes or talking to staff members and instead closely watched and listened."

Reasonable, even in the face of likely disappointment
Graham has sought compromise on immigration and healthcare reform, even though his concessions could backfire if Democrats believe they can win the fight without him.

Speaks truth to a blind, angry GOP
The senator has consistantly warned against driving off moderates candidates in swing states. "To those people who are pursuing purity, you'll become a club not a party," he told Politico earlier this month.

Great cocktail party chatter
From a Politico profile in September: "He's the perfect guest: personable, knowledgeable, powerful and handy with a one-liner. The real plus? He can get along with Democrats."

Now's the time for a bridge builder in the face of an uncooperative GOP and a strong Democratic party
A Republican Party that is shut-out of decision making could complain about liberal decisions made in Washington, but a GOP that refuses to go to the table just looks like obstructionists, not legislators.

We've set the bar so low
Jim DeMint is representing conservatives, not the state. "Every vote I take is about our country, it's not about South Carolina," he said during a conference call to supporters earlier this month.

A new respect for men of mystery; the less we know the better.
Graham has been incredibly private about his personal life, and after revelations from fellow GOP Sens. David Vitter and John Ensign, as well as Gov. Mark Sanford's crazy summer abroad, it's time for a little discretion.

One tough town hall punching bag
Asked how he'll defend the Constitution, DeMint told a local crowd that he'll be honest with them and they can go vote.

Stealing the hearts of old ladies everywhere
A Newsweek piece chronicling last year's presidential campaign noted the tense night as McCain and Graham awaited news of South Carolina's primary. "McCain's 95-year-old mother, Roberta, tried to lighten the mood by cracking jokes about how she wanted to marry Lindsey."

Rabid Sean Connery fan
He got real excited about meeting the film idol, who was a guest at the first meeting of the Senate Friends of Scotland Caucus. He said he liked The Untouchables. "I like the James Bond movies, but it would be boring to say that," he said.


Not conservative enough for you?

Check again. Here are some recent votes by Sen. Lindsey Graham that are nothing but red.

Oct. 27 Sided with fellow Republicans in a failed attempt to prevent HR 3548 from coming to a vote. The bill, which extends federal emergency unemployment benefits, later passed by the Senate 98-0.

Oct. 22 Voted against a defense appropriations bill, which included expanded hate crimes protections for gays and lesbians.

Aug. 6 Voted against an additional $2 billion for the "Cash for Clunkers" program.

July 22 Supported an unsuccessful amendment that would have allowed individuals with concealed weapons to legally carry them across state lines.

March 26 Voted against a bill that would expand national volunteer programs.

Jan. 22 Voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Pay Act, which increases equal-pay protections for women.

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