The Graham Strategy: Chicken Little Winging It

Before the next presidential candidate announcement makes us forget about him for a while–maybe a good while–it’s worth a brief consideration of Lindsey Graham’s supposed “path to the nomination” beyond the obvious fact that he’d need to win in his home state of South Carolina, one of the four privileged “early states.” Jonathan Bernstein may have nailed it yesterday: Graham’s spent so much time hanging out with his amigo John McCain that he figures he can emulate the lightning the Arizonan caught in a bottle:

McCain in 2000 accidentally wound up finishing second. He was too moderate for the Republican Party, but his biggest hurdle was his push for campaign finance reform, which turned Republican-aligned groups, who felt targeted by it, against him.

Instead of waging a conventional campaign — spending a year glad-handing Iowans and big-shot national Republicans — McCain instead hung out in New Hampshire with political reporters. Normally, that would have produced a few nice feature stories and nothing more. But in 2000, George W. Bush quickly dispatched his serious Republican rivals before or in the Iowa caucuses. New Hampshire voters (who famously love upsetting the Iowa winner, from Walter Mondale in 1984 through Barack Obama in 2008) punished Bush for wrapping up the nomination early by voting for McCain, thereby making him the last man standing against W.

McCain’s 2008 adventure was, if anything, even more unlikely. McCain spent the beginning of Bush’s first term in open revolt against his former rival before returning to the ranks of loyal Republicans just in time for the 2004 election — and the beginning of the 2008 nomination fight. McCain then put together a typical Republican front-runner campaign, heavy on corporate-style bureaucracy, only to have the whole thing collapse halfway through the cycle.

But once again, McCain was lucky. No candidate emerged who combined normal qualifications for the presidency, positions well within the mainstream of the party and the ability to build a competent presidential campaign. McCain came close enough on each of those scores to wind up as the nominee.

That’s almost exactly my analysis of McCain’s presidential nominating campaigns, especially the successful one in 2008 which was something of a demolition derby with a flawed and weak field.

The odds of it happening again, especially with the vast size of the 2016 field, are vanishingly small. And as Bernstein points out, Graham doesn’t have the war hero thing going for him, which always put a relatively high floor on GOP attitudes towards him.

It’s possible, of course, that Graham has no strategy at all, other than the indulging in the twisted pleasure professional politicians get from the abattoir of a presidential campaign. When he drops out, he’ll have his Senate gig, his access to the Sunday shows, and four more years before he has to face voters again back home. And in the back of his mind (I will not make Rand Paul’s mistake and suggest it’s in the front of his mind) Graham may figure that if something bad happens on the homeland security front during the nomination campaign, having a well-established identity as Chicken Little could change things considerably.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.