Defining ‘maverick’ down

DEFINING ‘MAVERICK’ DOWN…. The New York Times Magazine‘s profile on Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) already caused a bit of stir this week, when the piece showed him critical of the right-wing Tea Party “movement.” (He said it’s “unsustainable because they can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country,” an assessment I agree with.)

But that wasn’t really the point of the article. Rather, Robert Draper’s profile on Graham is about the senator becoming “this year’s maverick.” In an era of hyper-partisanship and Republican intransigence, the South Carolinian, we’re told, at least has a strong enough sense of his responsibilities that he’s willing to talk to Democrats about solving problems.

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….

The article goes on to quote White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel saying Graham is “willing to work on more things than the others.” Emanuel added, “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.”

It all sounds quite nice. Indeed, the Times article isn’t wrong — Graham has invested quite a bit of time talking to the White House, trying to work with people he disagrees with about issues he cares about. Given what we’ve seen of late from congressional Republicans, that counts for something.

But re-reading the piece this morning, I noticed something missing — any actual examples of Graham striking a deal with Democrats and getting something, anything, done. He’s been willing to engage Dems in discussion, and that’s more than anyone can say about most GOP lawmakers. But when it comes to successful follow-through — when it comes to being a problem-solving “maverick,” rather than looking like one — Graham comes up short.

He was willing to work with Democrats on immigration policy, before Graham walked away and announced he’d oppose his own compromise. He was willing to work with Democrats on energy policy, but again, Graham walked away and announced he’d oppose his own compromise.

Look back over the key votes of the last 17 months — economic recovery, health care, student loans, Wall Street reform, Lily Ledbetter — and you’ll notice that Graham not only voted with his far-right party in every instance, he even supported filibusters to prevent the Senate from voting at all.

Ultimately, the only meaningful difference between Graham and knee-jerk partisans who say “no” to everything Democrats try to do is that Graham is willing to talk to Dems — and then say “no” to everything Democrats try to do.

If that qualifies for “maverick” status, the political world is setting the bar awfully low.

Postscript: For more background on Graham’s “perilous bipartisanship,” the Monthly had a great cover-story on this in 2005.