Respond to this Article April 2005

Swing Conservative

The perilous bipartisanship of Lindsey Graham.

By Geoff Earle

Once news of the abuse at Abu Ghraib broke last April, it took just four days for the Senate Armed Services Committee to summon Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to testify. It took about five seconds after that for the committee's Democrats to start licking their chops. Take down the president's defense secretary, the conventional wisdom held, and Bush's standing as a wartime leader--and, presumably, the campaign resting squarely upon it--would crumble. Democrats wouldn't even have to do the dirty work because there was a Republican on the committee who was known to dislike Rumsfeld as much as any Democrat. And not just any Republican, but the most popular member of his party in the country and perhaps the only politician whose credibility on military issues overshadowed Rumsfeld's: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Every sign pointed towards a knockout blow by McCain. Because of his experience as a Vietnam POW, the Arizona Republican had every reason to be incensed by evidence that U.S. personnel had tortured captured Iraqis. With Democrats calling for the secretary's resignation, any public show of lost confidence from McCain might mortally wound the secretary's chances of surviving the scandal. Before the hearing, McCain was spotted chatting amiably with Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the committee's senior Democrat, and the cognoscenti nodded at what was certainly a sign of cooperation to come. Moreover, because all three major networks were broadcasting the hearings live, the whole country could watch.

But if Democrats were expecting McCain to pin responsibility for Abu Ghraib on the defense secretary, they were soon disappointed. When it was time for McCain to question Rumsfeld, he merely jabbed testily, focusing on the minutiae of the scandal, such as who was in charge of the interrogations and what their instructions had been. There were flashes of McCain's well-known temper, particularly when he insisted that Rumsfeld--not his subordinates--answer his questions. But the only noteworthy moment was a comical one: The secretary and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers realized that the chart illustrating the chain of command had been left back at the Pentagon. ("Oh my," mumbled Rumsfeld. "'Oh my' is right," replied Myers.) After McCain finished, the hearing quickly settled into a predictable groove with some Republicans minimizing the scandal as the work of a few bad apples and Democrats offering stern lectures.

Then Chairman John Warner (R-.Va.) turned the floor over to Lindsey Graham, a boyish-looking Republican from South Carolina barely a year into his first term filling the Senate seat of Strom Thurmond after eight years in the House. Graham won his Senate seat with a pledge to support the president's war on terror and since taking office he had been a steady advocate of the Iraq War. Unlike McCain, he had never taken issue with the Pentagon's leadership. There was little reason for Rumsfeld to believe that Graham's questions would be much different from those of any other Republican. Graham had other ideas. Dispensing with the time-wasting custom of an introductory statement, Graham launched straight into an interrogation. After putting Rumsfeld on his heels with a question about an unreleased video depicting torture, Graham cut straight to the chase. "Secretary Rumsfeld, people are calling for your resignation.... Do you have the ability, in your opinion, to come to Capitol Hill and carry the message and carry the water for the Department of Defense? Do you believe, based on all the things that have happened and that will happen, that you're able to carry out your duties in a bipartisan manner?"

It was the first time all hearing anyone had even uttered the word "resignation," and Rumsfeld shifted in his seat. "Well, it's a fair question. Um." Rumsfeld paused, before starting an uncharacteristically clumsy stall. "Certainly since this firestorm has been raging it's a question that I've given a lot of thought to. [Pause] The key question for me is the one you posed, and that is whether or not I can be effective. [Pause] Uh, we've got tough tasks ahead. [Pause] The [pause] people in the [pause] department [pause] military and civilian [pause] are doing enormously important work here [pause] uh, and in countries all over the world. And [pause] the, the issue is, uh, can [pause] I [pause] be effective in assisting them in their important tasks." Finally, Rumsfeld found the answer he had been looking for. "Needless to say, if I felt I could not be effective, I'd resign in a minute. [Eight-second pause.] I would not resign simply because people try to make a political issue out of it."

That night, Graham's questioning of Rumsfeld was shown on all three networks' evening news broadcasts, and made the front pages of the next day's New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. On Sunday, it was Graham, not McCain, who appeared on "Meet the Press" alongside Warner, Levin, and Gen. Wesley Clark. (McCain was relegated to the third-tier "FOX News Sunday.") A few days later, The New York Times ran a story on Graham's role entitled, "Senator's Pointed Questions Get to the Heart of the Matter."

Since last summer, Graham has felt increasingly free to stray from party doctrine and reach across the aisle on key issues. Last month, he signaled that he would not support the extension of some of the president's tax cuts. And in his biggest role so far, Graham is now attempting to win moderate Democratic support for a version of Social-Security reform legislation that would combine private accounts with an increase in the cap on payroll taxes. Graham's freelancing has given rise to a joke making the rounds of South Carolina's political circles that even with the retirement of Fritz Hollings, "We have a Democratic senator--Lindsey Graham." To some, it's more than a joke. Dick Harpootlian, who chaired the South Carolina State Democratic Party when Graham ran for the Senate, recently sent the GOP senator a $1,000 campaign donation.

Democrats used to reserve this kind of affection for moderates. But Lindsey Graham is no moderate. He came to Washington as a Newt Gingrich acolyte, served as a House manager of President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial, and is pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-tax cut. According to the standard-bearing American Conservative Union, Graham has voted for the conservative position 91 percent of the time since coming to Congress in 1995, identical to the rating with which Strom Thurmond retired.

Neither is Graham a maverick like McCain, someone hated by some of his GOP colleagues for his tendency, as one Republican senator described it to me, to "mount the parapet and wave the flag and take the pin out of the grenade." Rather, most GOP senators seem genuinely to like and respect Graham. Indeed, everyone seems to love him. Part of it is just Graham's personality. He carries none of the airs that surround many of his colleagues. His self-deprecating wit and aw-shucks Southern charm are hard to dislike. While not short on ambition, he shares credit with his colleagues and keeps his ego in check by pointing frequently to his own shortcomings.

But there's more than personal charm behind the South Carolinian's sudden rise to bipartisan stardom. Graham has discovered a new niche in the Senate, one opened by last November's elections. During Bush's first term, control of the Senate hung on a one-vote margin, and those senators in the middle held power. With the two parties almost evenly divided, victory on the most contentious issues depended on securing the votes of a small group of moderates--on the Democratic side, senators such as Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and the now retired John Breaux (D-La.); on the Republican side, lawmakers such as Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.)--or the mavericks such as McCain and collaborators such as Zell Miller (D-Ga.). But in a 55-45 GOP Senate, the moderates, mavericks, and turncoats have lost most of their clout, and the fulcrum of deal-making power has shifted to the right.

Democrats know that to have any chance of affecting or killing a piece of legislation, they must not only win over McCain and the moderates, but also pick off a conservative or two. On the Republican side, those who can maintain credibility with the White House and Senate leadership and at the same time work with Democrats to maximize their influence are the ones in the best position to broker compromises. These dealmakers represent a new species on Capitol Hill: call them "swing conservatives."

Several solid GOP senators have moved into this category. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) has done so on immigration, Social Security, and a few defense issues. Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) have allied with Democrats to hold up the White House's energy bill due to environmental concerns. And old lions Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) and Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) have stalled in the path of a dramatic and controversial change in parliamentary procedure that would smooth confirmation for the most conservative of Bush's judicial nominations. The Senate's latest arrivals are catching on. Conservative freshmen Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) are pushing their own version of a bill to allow the reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada.

Of all the swing conservatives, Graham is arguably the one willing to cross deepest into bipartisan territory. But while his apostasies make headlines and give the White House occasional headaches, when all is said and done, Graham's independence is at least as valuable to the Republicans as it is to Democrats. Consider his role in the Abu Ghraib hearings. With his tough questioning of Rumsfeld, Graham earned a rare Washington commodity: credibility. In the end, however, he put that credibility to use in bolstering the position of the secretary of defense. On "Meet the Press," Graham pointedly refused to say Rumsfeld should step down, a position he has maintained ever since. During those crucial early days, Rumsfeld's ability to maintain unified GOP support in the Senate was essential to his political survival. Had Graham flipped, the White House's continued loyalty to Rumsfeld would have been made far more difficult, if not impossible. Graham's even-handed posture "did a lot to end a period that was corrosive and dangerous for the administration," says Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.).

For all the appeal of Graham's swing conservatism to Democrats, the elemental fact is that, on the big questions, it serves Republicans most.

The path to power

The Senate offers countless opportunities to study the taxonomy of power. There are, for instance, the traditional metrics of seniority and committee assignments. But these are static and can't account for sudden shifts of influence. For that, better places to look are the hallways on Tuesdays after each party's weekly caucus meeting. Senators file into the hallways surrounding the Senate chamber and are met by a phalanx of reporters looking for quotes to fill their stories. Nabbing a senator here is like catching a trout in a stocked pond. Even the backbenchers are stopped by at least a wire-service reporter looking to provide quotes for the senators' local papers. But the stars--the McCains and Clintons--are mobbed, holding forth for five, 10, 15 reporters at once. Time is short, and reporters jockey for position to make sure their questions can be asked and answered. You can tell how hot a senator is by the size of the impromptu press conference gathering around him. At such moments, Graham looks slightly out of place. Many senators seem to stand on tiptoe in a crowd. Graham, only 5'7", feels free to slouch.

When I first began researching this story in early February, three or four reporters would gather around Graham after the caucus meetings, politely allowing their colleagues the chance to ask questions and follow-up, certain that they'd get their chance. But when the Social-Security debate started heating up, Graham became a commodity, and the circle of reporters surrounding him to fish for some juicy quote skeptical of the president's plan began to grow. By March, when Graham stepped off of the Capitol's "Senators Only" elevator on his way to a GOP lunch, he found himself immediately surrounded by at least a dozen reporters, who queried him at length about his Social-Security plan.

When Graham was finished, I asked him to step aside to talk about the evolution of his independent status. Graham brought me into the ornate President's Room, which is a prime spot for lobbyists to congregate because it is near the Republican cloakroom. Immediately, an environmental lobbyist standing behind a velvet rope buttonholed Graham to ask him to oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Graham smiled and politely told her that he was on the other side, then added ingenuously, "But thanks for asking."

It is no surprise that Graham would be asked, even though he has been a safe vote against the environmental lobby throughout his career. His willingness to work with the Democrats and against the administration on hot-button issues leads many Democrats to convince themselves that Graham, in his heart, is really with them. In addition to bucking the White House on Social Security, Graham had recently held a press conference with Sen. Clinton to push a bill extending health care to National Guard members and their families. "There are people at home [who] hate the fact that I'm going on TV with Senator Clinton," Graham told me. "[But] if at the end of the day, Lindsey Graham and Hillary Clinton can impact the lives of National Guard families, I would be very pleased. To the critics: Don't get so hard in your political life that you can't help people that have problems."

Graham grew up in Seneca, S.C., where his mother and father ran a small neighborhood bar next to a textile plant. The Grahams lived in two rooms behind the bar. In a two-year span while Graham was studying at the University of South Carolina, both of his parents died of illnesses. His sister was only 13 at the time, and Graham at first volunteered to raise her, though he was only a senior; his extended family decided it would be best if she lived with a nearby aunt and uncle. After Graham graduated from college and law school, he entered the Air Force and formally adopted his sister, largely so that she could share in his military health benefits. After spending four years abroad as a senior Air Force prosecutor, Graham returned to South Carolina and joined a friend's law practice. As a trial lawyer, Graham represented criminal defendants and medical malpractice plaintiffs, and earned both a substantial local reputation and the money he would later use to finance his early political career. The same year that he won a $5 million malpractice case award, Graham put up $20,000 of his own money to finance a winning 1992 campaign for the State House. Two years later, he financed a campaign for Congress and, like 32 other Republican signatories of the Contract With America, swept into Washington on the coattails of Newt Gingrich.

Graham positioned himself squarely inside the Republican Revolution, but he never seemed to get lost amid the heady anti-government mantras of his colleagues. With a position on the House Subcommitte on Workforce Protections, Graham took part in the conservative effort to weaken the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). But while his colleagues were demonizing OSHA as "the Gestapo of the federal government," Graham was far more equitable. Discussing the need for reform in a Washington Post article, Graham said he remembered watching textile workers come into his parents' bar "with their shirts covered with cotton, white as they could be. There'd be a finger missing on every other person." Graham admitted that the government needed to play a role to make workplaces safer, just as it had been needed to end segregation. He wasn't opposed to a government role per se, but OSHA had gone too far in his view, and it was necessary for a Republican Congress to "correct the excesses of government from the past generation."

By 1997, Graham became disillusioned with Gingrich after the Speaker had been forced into a variety of compromises with the White House. That summer, Graham became one of the leaders of a group of 11 conservative House members who began discussing ways to replace Gingrich. At the same time, Gingrich deputies Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, and Bill Paxon were talking privately of a revolt of their own. The two groups quickly found each other and Graham hosted a midnight meeting in his office where DeLay told the group that other members of the House leadership would support a move to replace Gingrich. But the putsch didn't get off the ground. Gingrich got wind of the revolt and quickly consolidated power.

Found out, Armey and DeLay abandoned their hopes of unseating Gingrich and distanced themselves from the plotters, even dressing down Graham and the other rebels in a private meeting with the Speaker. Word spread through the caucus and during one meeting, Armey was asked by a Gingrich loyalist about rumors that "leadership," meaning Armey himself, had been involved in the coup. Armey called the rumor "trash," pinning the revolt on Graham and his cohorts. Graham became so incensed at Armey's claim that he leapt from his seat and knocked over several chairs in an aggressive lunge for a microphone, before being held back by colleagues, according to an account in The Washington Post.

At a subsequent meeting, one congressman demanded that the dissidents account for their disloyalty to the leader who brought the Republicans to power. All were quiet except for Graham, who stood and explained that while he understood the importance of loyalty from his days in the Air Force, he had to be pragmatic. Gingrich, whose personal approval ratings nationally were at the time in the 20s, was less popular in his conservative South Carolina district than President Clinton, Graham said. "If I do well in my district, it is in spite of Newt Gingrich," he told the caucus. Former Rep. Bill Paxon, now a lobbyist, who lost his leadership post because of his role in the coup, told me recently that he thought Graham had been forthright about his role from beginning to end. "He didn't hide it. He didn't try to manipulate things. He was very straightforward about it." Graham now says the experience was liberating, allowing him to diverge from leadership's line, but at the same time it taught him an important lesson about how to do it with more grace and effectiveness. "It made me more willing to speak my mind, but more understanding of: You don't have to go into a room and blow it up. You should try to be more clever and thoughtful about how you do it."

While his involvement certainly didn't make Graham any friends in the House leadership, circumstances pushed him back into the spotlight the following year when his position on the House Judiciary Committee led to a role as one of 13 House managers during the Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton. Graham stood out among the crowd, earning a reputation for bipartisanship and was among a group of several members who explored whether it would be possible to avoid a trial by reaching a settlement. Again, Graham displayed no sign of personal malice, but his skill and experience as a trial attorney gave the White House legal team problems. Greg Craig, one of Clinton's attorneys during impeachment, recalls a "brutal" legal attack that Graham launched against Charles Ruff, another Clinton attorney--which had been completely unexpected. Graham focused on whether Clinton had committed an abuse of power by using White House employees like Sidney Blumenthal to smear Monica Lewinsky.

But when the votes were taken in committee on four separate articles of impeachment, Graham voted against one count dealing with whether Clinton had perjured himself in his deposition in the Paula Jones civil lawsuit, making him the only Judiciary Committee Republican to oppose an impeachment article. Graham's reasoning was that all kinds of people might be tempted to lie about their sex lives in a civil case. "He was looking at the constitutional standard and taking it seriously," said Craig. Graham's opposition, Craig believes, is the reason the article later failed on the House floor. "That was Lindsey Graham," he told me. "I'm sure it's [because of] Lindsey Graham." Ironically, Craig said, that article would have been among the most difficult for Clinton's team to defend against because of some of Clinton's statements during the civil deposition. "Some people might say that Lindsey Graham, because of his opposition to the Paula Jones article, was responsible for saving the president a good deal of trouble."

With the attention he received from the impeachment trial, Graham quickly became the most prominent Republican congressman from South Carolina, and he positioned himself for a run for the Senate as Thurmond neared the end of this term. Announcing his candidacy in February 2001, Graham promised, "For the rest of my life, I will honor Senator Thurmond's legacy and continue to fight for his cause of conservative government." Graham won Thurmond's endorsement and quickly muscled out other challengers by building an early war chest. In an effort to punish him for chairing McCain's 2000 South Carolina primary campaign, the White House tried to recruit a challenger but failed. Eventually, the administration threw its weight behind Graham's campaign. Early in 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney visited South Carolina and offered the White House's unflinching support to Graham. With Bush enormously popular in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Graham made his close ties to the White House a central issue in his campaign. During Cheney's visit, Graham said, "God has put the right two people in charge of America at the right time." In a state Bush had won two years earlier by 16 percent, Graham won over Democrat Alex Sanders easily.

Good cop, bad cop

Graham entered the Senate at a uniquely polarized moment, and his first year was dominated by bitter floor fights over judicial nominations, tax cuts, and Iraq. The freshman senator was a reliable vote for Republicans on all three issues. But Graham set himself apart from a broad GOP effort to isolate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle as an obstructionist unable to work with Republicans. Graham, unbothered by the GOP's strategy, asked Daschle if he could sign on to a bill the Democratic leader had written that would extend health coverage of military reservists. At a time when Daschle was working to reestablish his bipartisan credentials for the conservative South Dakota electorate he would face in November 2004, the cooperation of a Republican senator was valuable, and the Daschle campaign duly touted the partnership. Just a week after Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist broke with Senate tradition to campaign against his counterpart in South Dakota, Graham was on the floor of the Senate thanking Daschle for his graciousness and leadership on an important military issue. While Graham never went far out of his way to emphasize his connection to Daschle, he seemed to relish crossing the battle lines. As he left one meeting with senior members of Daschle's staff, Graham joked, "Republican by day. Democrat by night," according to a Democratic aide. Daschle and Graham's bill did not pass, and with Daschle no longer in the Senate, Graham has found one of the few partners less popular with Republicans than Daschle: Hillary Clinton.

While Graham actively campaigned for President Bush's reelection, his role in the Abu Ghraib hearings cemented his reputation among the national media as an independent voice and honest broker. That, alongside his ambition to be a national figure and willingness to sweat the details, has put Graham at the fulcrum of Social Security, the most contentious and far-reaching domestic policy debate in at least a decade.

Graham brings a special interest to Social Security. He and his sister received survivor benefits after his parents' death. "As a 22-year-old college student with a 13-year-old sister to raise," he says today, "survivor benefits meant the world to me and our family." Still, Graham campaigned in 2002 on a pledge to overhaul Social Security and has long been a champion of private accounts. But once again, Graham has set himself against the single-mindedness of the administration. While President Bush has declined to say how he would pay for the shortfall created by a switch to private accounts, saying that this is the job of Congress, Graham has been unabashedly taking his colleagues to task for acting as though they can have it all. "The one thing we're not doing as Republicans is asking anybody to pay for anything," Graham told a small group of reporters recently. "You can't borrow everything to fix these big entitlement programs. Where you can raise revenue, you should." And Graham hasn't been shy about proposing ways to raise the funds. Early in the year, Graham floated the idea of raising the cap on the payroll tax from $90,000 to $200,000. At the same time, he has suggested lowering the 12.4 percent rate to 11.9 percent, which, alongside the higher cap, would have the effect of making the payroll tax significantly more progressive. Make no mistake, Graham's proposal amounts to a tax increase, something that has certainly gotten the attention of the conservative establishment. "If this talk continues," said conservative economist Lawrence Kudlow, "the president's political base could suffer a sizable morale loss." The National Review ran a story on Graham's idea titled "Graham Crackers."

Graham is also reaching out to Democrats to try and salvage a deal. Graham has been meeting with a core group of Senate centrists on Social Security. Among them are Sen. Lieberman, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) who backed the president on a recent class action bill, and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, who backed Bush's 2001 tax cuts. Late last year, Graham penned an op-ed with Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, stating that "all options" should be on the table.

In short, Graham has displayed the characteristics that have made him a favorite among Washington Democrats. He's been forthright in acknowledging that private accounts alone won't fix the financial shortfall. He's proven willing to buck his party's leadership to propose tax increases. And he's demonstrated a political appreciation for the Democrats' determination to preserve guaranteed benefits for the poor. "I'm trying to take all of these things expressed to me by Democrats into consideration," he said. If Graham can get Democratic centrists and GOP budget hawks to reach agreement, he can force changes in the Bush plan, including requiring the president to make tough choices to pay for it in order to get it through the Senate.

And for Democrats, that could be the problem. Just as Graham's tough and evenhanded posture ended up preserving Donald Rumsfeld's job, his maneuvering on Social Security could, in the end, give cover to the president's plan to privatize Social Security. Graham seems genuine about his proposal and his claims of seeking bipartisan compromise. But unwittingly or not, Graham seems to be playing the good cop in the Republican Good Cop/Bad Cop game. His sweet demeanor seems to assure Democrats that he's not on some ideological crusade. He demonstrates a concern for their ideas and is even willing to make their case to the GOP higher-ups. It's convincing because it's sincere. Graham is a good cop because in his heart, he believes cops should be good. But at the end of the day, he may use the credibility he has built through negotiations to ask Democrats to sign on to a compromise that creates private accounts for Social Security recipients. If even one or two bite, those Democrats will be handing President Bush the single most significant domestic achievement of his presidency and fundamentally and forever altering the flagship liberal government program. If and when that happens, the White House may have Lindsey Graham to thank for it.

This is why some of the most politically astute Democrats view Graham with circumspection. "I think he's on the level," says John Podesta, Clinton's former chief of staff. But that doesn't mean he's an ally. "The standard play for these guys is [that] the House passes some really right wing thing. They find some sort of compromise that a few Democrats are for, and then they pass the House version of the bill. We've seen this play out a number of times across a range of issues. It's proven to be both substantively and politically an unattractive option."

This isn't to say Democrats are fools to work with Graham or the other swing conservatives. Sen. Clinton is hoping that her association with Graham, who after all was among the House members arguing for her husband's impeachment, sands down the partisan edges from her image. ("I think he was against us," Podesta deadpanned, when asked about Graham's role during impeachment. "It hasn't stopped Senator Clinton from working with him.") Moreover, in a GOP-dominated Senate, Democrats need Republicans to help get a hearing for their policy ideas. Graham and the others offer a conservative stamp of approval on legislation that at the end of the day requires the assent of leadership if it is ever to see action. If Democrats accomplish anything in the 109th Congress, it will be thanks to swing conservatives such as Lindsey Graham.

But if they ever hope to take power back from the Republicans, Democrats will need to learn precisely when to reject Graham's entreaties for compromise. More and more, both parties are relying on stark contrasts to define themselves and their policies to voters. Graham, by his nature and through his policies, tends to blur distinctions between opposing camps. Whether or not Social-Security reform succeeds this year--and whether Democrats succeed in ever taking back power--may depend on Democrats' ability to resist the temptations of working with a Republican whose good intentions, at least, they have every reason to trust.

Geoff Earle is a staff writer for The Hill newspaper.


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