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Republicans Have Their Fear Candidate for 2016

Lindsey Graham is convinced the world is exploding, and thinks he's the only one who knows how to work the fire extinguisher.
March 19, 2015, 8:48pm
Photo via US Department of Defense

"Jeb couldn't be here today and you better be glad, 'cause it would have been $10,000 a plate. Cruz couldn't be here 'cause he's building a fence. … Any Democrats here? You better be glad Scott Walker's not here, 'cause he would beat you up."

The jokes are decent, as far as jokes about people running for president go. A little dad-ish, a little amateur, but not bad—they get at the essence of three Republican candidates, short and punchy, and not mean, per se, but also not not mean. If I was Senator Ted Cruz, and I heard myself described as being off somewhere building a fence, I'd probably shake my jowls and shrug.

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The best part about those jokes isn't the jokes themselves, though; it's that they came from another prospective GOP candidate. Lindsey Graham, the Republican Senator from South Carolina who, despite his state's redder-than-raw-meat politics, clobbered Tea Party challengers in 2014, is considering a run for president in the next cycle, and that means making jokes at events like the St. Patrick's Day breakfast roast in Nashua, New Hampshire.

To give you a sense of how unlikely Graham's dominance in South Carolina was in 2014, here's a paragraph from Molly Ball's profile of the senator for The Atlanticlast spring:

On paper, Graham is the right wing's juiciest target. An unapologetic champion of bipartisanship and compromise, he has worked with Democrats on initiatives such as immigration reform and climate legislation. Conservative blogs and talk radio have nicknamed him "Flimsy Lindsey" and "Grahamnesty." … He has been censured by nine separate South Carolina county GOP organizations and heckled at his state party convention. For years, a local activist has driven around with a Graham effigy stuffed headfirst into a toilet, leading a brigade of self-styled "RINO hunters." In 2012, the president of the Club for Growth said Graham would be the fiscally conservative group's top target this year.

But Graham didn't just win last year: he annihilated his far-right opponents, taking 56 percent of the primary vote. After that, the general election was pretty much a foregone conclusion. And while any bid for the White House would be a serious long shot—another joke Graham made at Tuesday's roast was about how Senator John McCain, his BFF and closest neocon ally in the Senate, is his "best and, quite frankly, only supporter"—he might have an outside chance of being the most entertaining candidate of 2016.

Right now, the field of potential Republican candidates mostly falls along one of two possible lines. There's the establishment conservatives like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, and there's the far-right candidates, like Cruz, Walker, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul. Given Christie's spectacular implosion, Graham could be the candidate injecting, at least from an outside perspective, a little fun into the race: unlike the ultra-conservatives, he's unlikely to try and defund the Department of Education, and unlike Bush, he has a discernible personality. He's been one of the few Republicans bold enough to offer unmitigated resistance to the Tea Party, and he usually does so by aggressively belittling them. He and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid reportedly end phone calls by exchanging F-bombs. He's never sent an email. And he has almost no chance of winning any 2016 election, at least as things stand right now, so unlike the rest of the field, he's free to say and do as he pleases.

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There is one complicating factor, though, and it's a big one. Like his best bud McCain, this dude is a big-time hawk. Like, a "with us or against us," wipe-our-enemies-off-the-face-of-the-planet, America is in a "religious war against radical Islam" kind of hawk, one who thinks the Middle East is once again ripe for some good-old-fashioned American interventionism. One of the most outspoken critics of the Obama administration's foreign policy, Graham has been against negotiating with Iran from the beginning, telling talk radio host Hugh Hewitt last month that nuclear Ayatollahs would be "the greatest threat the world will know in my lifetime." And you get the sense that he really, truly believes this.

In fact, these convictions are the reasons why Graham got it in his head to run for president in the first place. As Stephen F. Hayes wrote for The Weekly Standard, Graham is so certain that Obama has brought America to the brink of nuclear winter, he thinks he may be the only one who can fix shit around here.

The positions put Graham pretty far outside public opinion, and will likely freak the hell out of any left-of-center American, as well as many Republicans who aren't convinced the US should jump back in to another overseas war in the desert. It could also be the sticking point for those on the far right who would otherwise be appalled by Graham's more centrist views on domestic issues. If the South Carolina Senator does become a real player in the Republican primary, we can look forward to seeing the GOP have a dark night of the soul as it decides which issues truly drive the party.

After last year's State of the Union, Graham told reporters, "The world is literally about to blow up," and strongly implied that it was Obama's fault. It's one thing to call an opposition president weak—as a Republican Senator who actually does think the world is about to blow up, it's almost your duty—but it's another to level that charge against members of your own party. Graham's belief that he's the only guy that knows how to work the fire extinguisher is bound to cause a panic among his 2016 primary opponents, pushing the entire GOP field to the right on foreign policy, and turning the Republican campaign into a race for who can fearmonger hardest. So as entertaining as the rest of us might find Graham and his Southern dad jokes, you can rest assured that his fellow candidates won't be laughing.

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