Wait — Lindsey Graham? Really?

Thus far, the story of the 2016 Republican presidential field is that everyone who seems interested in running already is — yielding a dozen or so active candidates even without counting marginal attention-seekers such as Dr. Ben Carson or Representative Michele Bachmann.

Today, however, for the first time in a while, a new name has been added to the list: South Carolina’s Senator Graham, who told the Weekly Standard that he’s thinking of joining the field because it’s short on hawkish sentiment.

How seriously should we take a Graham candidacy? Not very. Graham is reviled by anti-immigrant groups because he championed — and voted for — comprehensive reform, and by other conservatives because he has worked with Democrats. In addition, he has never been a favorite of social conservatives, who doubt his commitment to their issues. He’s reminiscent of 2008 candidates such as Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and John McCain, who appeared almost fatally flawed on conservative litmus tests but were nonetheless able to compete because the field lacked a mainstream conservative without such flaws. Graham’s late start — this is the first I’ve heard that he’s interested in running — also reminds me of previous dead-end campaigns by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch and former Senator Richard Lugar, each of whom seemed to confuse his elevated status among Senate peers with a viable presidential campaign.

Even in an election cycle such as 2008 I would have been skeptical of a Graham candidacy. This time around, given a solid, deep conservative field of Republican candidates, his case is just about totally implausible.

Perhaps the more interesting question concerns what motivated this trial balloon in the (very hawkish) Weekly Standard. The article included a quote from Graham about another 2016 contender, Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Graham said, “We don’t need another young guy not quite ready.” What makes that so interesting is that Rubio has positioned himself as perhaps the leading hawk in the race. Others, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, are also competing for support from foreign policy neoconservatives, but Rubio has used the Senate to acquire marginally better credentials. Is the Weekly Standard signaling that hawks haven’t yet found a satisfactory candidate? Or should the article be seen as an effort to push Rubio, Christie and others into even more hawkish postures?

Kremlinology is always speculative. But that’s the nature of the invisible primary; we can’t actually see it clearly. Nevertheless, the campaign is very much under way — so much so that if Graham really intends to run, he’s already tardy. At any rate, today probably marks the high point of Graham 2016. I hope he enjoyed it.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.