LAS VEGAS — Lindsey Graham is looking to run his mouth into the White House.
The smooth-talking South Carolina senator isn’t officially in the 2016 presidential race yet, but when he enters the contest – and it’s almost certainly a “when,” not an “if” – he will do so as a candidate comfortable with himself and willing to run against perceived Republican Party orthodoxy.
But despite the fact the 59-year-old has more experience than many of the other 2016 Republican presidential aspirants, he isn’t getting viewed as a serious contender for the crown.
“Well, I just started this thing a couple of months ago,” Graham explained to several media outlets, including The Daily Caller, at a bar in the Venetian Hotel Saturday when asked why he is perceived by the media as a bit of a sideshow in the presidential race. “And a lane for me is a different lane. I’m not going to be the most ideologically pure guy in the primary.”
Indeed, a Graham run would attempt to challenge, among other things, conventional wisdom when it comes to immigration and the conservative base. Like perhaps Jeb Bush, Graham has no intention of running away from his support for comprehensive immigration reform, even as Scott Walker seems to flip and flop on his past position on the issue and Marco Rubio says his support for the Gang of Eight immigration bill in the Senate, which Graham was also co-author to, was a mistake.
“I ran against six people and I won by 41 points,” Graham says of his 2014 primary race where he won despite being attacked for supporting “amnesty” – or what some activists even referred to as “Grahamnesty” given his outspokenness on the issue. “I went to town hall meeting after town hall meeting, barbecue after barbecue, explaining why I think what I am trying to do makes sense. And the truth of the matter is most Republicans are ok with legal status leading to pathway to citizenship if you can convince them we won’t have a third wave.”
Graham is also open about the fact that he would support a deal with Democrats on entitlement reform that would raise revenue, which isn’t exactly popular in some corners of the right.
“I’m willing to do revenue by closing loopholes if Democrats will adjust the age of retirement and means test,” he says. “That’s the only way we save America.”
But the bread and butter of Graham’s campaign will be national security.
“We need a commander in chief who can bring order to chaos. I think I know how to do that,” he said.
That’s why Graham found himself in Vegas. He was there to hawk his hawkishness to pro-Israel donors at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Spring Meeting. He said he had an opportunity to meet with mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who he says he first met two decades ago when he traveled to Israel with the multi-billionaire as a congressman.
“The one thing I learned about Sheldon is if you tell people what you talked to Sheldon about, that’s not a good thing,” he said when pressed to disclose details of the meeting.
But Graham readily admits the one thing he needs to get in place before committing to a run is money.
“You want to give?” he jokes to the three reporters gathered around him.
“I need enough money,” he said later, getting serious. “You can lose because you don’t have enough, but you can’t win because you’ve got the most.”
Reporters should only hope Graham enters the presidential field. The self-proclaimed “short white guy from South Carolina” has a quick wit, gives a great quote, and is more than willing to take on his other potential White House challengers by name, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, whose non-interventionist foreign policy worldview seems to disgust Graham.
“Well he keeps bringing me up,” Graham says when asked why he has been shooting verbal barbs at Paul.
“All I can tell you is his view of foreign policy is falling by the wayside,” he went on.
“It was never fundamentally sound. He is trying to recreate himself here. He is more like his dad,” he added, referring to Ron Paul, the former congressman and presidential contender who still advocates in his political retirement an American retreat from the world.
When asked whether he could support Paul in a race against Hillary Clinton, Graham is as quick to say he would as he is to turn his attack on the presumptive Democratic nominee, his former colleague in the Senate.
“Where’s she at on this Iran deal?” he asks rhetorically of Hillary. “You know, her listening tour is something out of the North Korean playbook. I mean, try to talk to her like this. I don’t know where she is at on Israel. I knew where she was at on the [Iran] sanctions. She opposed them. And the reset with Russia – how well is that working?”
Ted Cruz has tried to define his foreign policy vision as something of a middle ground between Paul and someone like Graham. The Texas senator and 2016 presidential contender is hawkish on Iran, but believes the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya and decision to throw Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak under the bus during the 2011 Egyptian revolution were not in America’s interest.
“So he’s for the dictator,” Graham said of Cruz’s positions on those issues. “So I’m an American. I’m not for the dictator.”
“You can’t be for freedom here at home but, ‘Hey, buddy, kill everybody you’d like to kill as long as your good with us,’” he continued. “The one thing I can tell you about the Mid-East, the days of asking people to live in totalitarian dictatorships for our convenience are over.”
Graham says those who believe the lesson of Libya is for America to be more careful before intervening in such situations are missing the point.
“The lesson to be learned from Libya is not that we wish Gaddafi was still alive, but that we should have helped the Libyan people after he was taken out by building up their army and their security forces,” he said of the current turmoil in Libya. “The Islamists lost at the ballot box in the first two elections. So if the lesson you learned from Libya is to wish dictators were back in charge, you’re missing the whole point.”
In fact, the South Carolina senator, who also serves as a colonel in the Air Force Reserves, is a big believer in soft power, not just hard power.
“I’m a hawk but here’s what I get: you can’t kill your way into security,” he said. “You have to invest in other people’s lives in the region. You have to build up institutions. You have to invest in their security infrastructure. You have to really play for the hearts and minds of young people to be safe here.”
Under Cruz’s foreign policy theory, Graham contends, “it would have been better not to try to bring down the Berlin Wall because things were pretty stable. You know, just give half the world over to communism because, you know, things are pretty stable.”
If he ultimately decides to run, Graham says he will announce at the end of May or the beginning of June in South Carolina.
“If I don’t announce in South Carolina, I’m going to announce in front of the Western Wall,” he quips, before paraphrasing Ronald Reagan, “’Don’t tear that wall down.’”
Asked whether close friends like Sen. John McCain and former Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Joe Lieberman will support him on the campaign trail, Graham said they probably would, but the race has to be about his merits, not theirs.
“I think the ‘Three Amigos,’ the band may come back together,” he said. “I don’t know if it would help in the primary. Joe is a dear friend, but you know, at the end of the day it’s got to be about me, not Joe Lieberman, not John McCain.”
But Graham doesn’t want to be mistaken for a vanity candidate or someone angling for a cabinet position in a Republican administration. Should he enter the race, he says he will do so believing his long-shot candidacy has a path to victory.
“Here’s the only hope a guy like me has: If it weren’t for Iowa and New Hampshire, I wouldn’t have a chance,” he explained. “You can still do well in Iowa and New Hampshire by doing meeting after meeting after meeting. It’s antidote to big money. You need enough money to have an organization to seize the moment when that moment comes, but the beauty of the early primary contest it does provide some antidote to just buying the primary. And I think that will be an advantage to me.”