Only a few senators could have pulled off what Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, did last week: snagging major airtime at two high-profile confirmation hearings, seemingly at the same time. Graham was so busy shuttling between office buildings, in fact, that he missed a White House meeting on redesigning an energy bill.
Over the next two weeks, he’ll keep moving on a fact-finding trip to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel with his best bros, Sens. Joe Lieberman and John McCain. As leading advocates for our vast military involvement in the region, they will have maximum access, of course. But Graham will go the others one better. He is a judge advocate in the Air Force Reserves and will be on “active duty” in Afghanistan, so he can advise the locals on how to set up a court system. “It’s gotten too dangerous for civilian contractors,” he explained to me. So here is a guy who wants to be in the dangerous middle of things, a guy who is everywhere, or so it seems. The question is whether that is a good thing—or, for the Democrats, a sign of continuing trouble.
In a brutally, bitterly divided city—Washington, that is, not Kabul, Baghdad, or Jerusalem—Graham is what passes for a bipartisan Republican statesman. The only Republican on the Judiciary Committee to vote for Sonia Sotomayor, he will almost certainly be the only one to vote for Kagan too. He openly discusses, and perhaps even considers, concepts as taboo (for Tea Party types, anyway) as a carbon-emission trading system and a green-card process for illegal immigrants. And he is beyond cordial to home-state Democrats such as Inez Moore Tenenbaum, an early Obama supporter who now heads the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In his earnest, almost claustrophobically informal way, Graham pines for the old days and old ways, when friendships and loyalty to the Senate and the Constitution could override mere politics and parties were not so suffocating. Party labels mean less and less to voters, especially young ones, he says, yet those same labels mean more and more inside the Beltway. “Here it’s not enough to support a cause,” he told me, as he downed a breakfast of Special K and Diet Coke in his Washington office. “Here you almost have to hate the other side, and that’s what I don’t like.”
Thus Graham embodies the crystalline hope of Obama’s new cooperative era in Washington. As a leader from the birthplace of the modern Southern wing of his party, he has dealmaking clout that the New England wing does not. Although they do it on background, White House insiders speak of him almost fondly. “Graham is a vision of the most bipartisan the GOP gets these days,” says a longtime Obama aide.
That’s the problem: if Graham is as bipartisan as it gets, the president and the Democrats are in deeper trouble than they realize. This, after all, is someone who served as a prosecutor in the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1998; someone who votes the GOP party line 92.4 percent of the time—exactly one tenth of a point less than Republican leader Mitch McConnell; and someone whose apostasies are often low-visibility votes for Justice Department -appointments—a great way, not coincidentally, for a member of the Judiciary Committee to acquire friends with benefits in the legal bureaucracy.
On big-ticket stuff, Graham rarely strays from his caucus. He voted against the stimulus package, wants to kill the financial-services bill—and now hopes to repeal health-care reform, his staff disclosed to me. “Lindsey is Lindsey, but we love his voting record,” says McConnell spokesman Don Stewart. Graham professes shock that his positions could come as a surprise to anyone: “I’m not a liberal Republican! I’m a conservative.”
And even if he wanted to, Graham couldn’t deliver GOP votes. He is tolerated more than admired in his own caucus. For now, the real energy is with his rejectionist brethren, led by the likes of fellow South Carolinian Jim DeMint. Graham has no room to maneuver on immigration, and only slightly more on energy.
Obama and Rahm Emanuel—another one of Graham’s phone pals—believe that the man can help them. Their colleagues aren’t so sure. “Most of the people in our caucus don’t see him as a reliable partner,” says a Democratic leadership aide. Now would be a good time for someone to tell the White House that Graham is more a mirage of bipartisanship than the fact of it—even if he has figured out how to be in two places at once.
Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.