Sen. Lindsey Graham all but announced his entry into the race for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential election during a May 18 episode of CBS This Morning.
Graham’s quasi-announcement came in response to a softball of a question, tossed slow and easy over Graham’s home plate by Charlie Rose: “Are you running in part because you look at the field and you don’t think they’re very sophisticated on foreign policy and you believe that’s the one thing you bring to the race?”
It was a perfect setup for Graham, South Carolina’s senior senator, who has never been one to hide his war-hawk feathers. “I’m running because of what you see on television,” Graham said. “I’m running because I think the world is falling apart. I’ve been more right than wrong on foreign policy.”
It’s impossible to fact-check that last statement entirely, but anyone who has followed Graham’s numerous and vociferous public comments on Benghazi, Iraq, and the threat of terrorist threats on American soil can probably think of a few facts he has gotten wrong over the years. And they are not minor facts.
In 2003, Graham said that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction, a falsehood that became one of the main justifications for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A 2004 CIA report found that Iraq did not possess illicit, undeclared stockpiles of WMDs.
In August 2003, when the Post and Courier asked Graham how long U.S. troops would have to stay in Iraq, Graham said, “Perhaps a year or more.” In September 2004, Graham said of the Iraq War, “If we can make it through January … then I think we’ve turned the corner.” He said in August 2007, “I’m confident that the Iraqi people have turned a corner.” U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq in 2011, over loud protests from Graham.
In March 2013, after a 2012 terrorist attack on a U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, Graham said, “The administration doesn’t want you to know what happened in Benghazi. It’s a bad story and they’re trying to cover it up in my opinion.” He called a 60 Minutes piece on the Benghazi attack a “death blow” to the Obama administration’s narrative about the attack, but that piece was later discredited. After a Republican-led Congressional report found no cover-up, Graham held his ground, calling the Congressional report “full of crap.”
In September 2013, Graham called for the deployment of 10,000 U.S. boots on the ground in Syria and said, “I believe that if we get Syria wrong, within six months — and you can quote me on this — there will be a war between Iran and Israel over their nuclear program.” The U.S. did not send troops into Syria, and a war did not break out between Iran and Israel.
In January 2014, Graham said, “The world is literally about to blow up.” The world did not literally blow up.
Mistakes were made
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution specializing in defense policy, says mistakes come with the territory of being an outspoken voice on military and foreign-policy issues.
“Any of us who have been involved in this Iraq debate for the whole 10 or 12 or 15 years or longer like him are going to get some things wrong,” O’Hanlon says. “But one of the things I think [Graham] has been the most effective with is understanding the military details and the political details of the surge, and staying with that and helping contribute to the support for it and the explanation of it in the period of time when it was making major headway.”
O’Hanlon, by the way, is a Democrat who says he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2008. Outside of his aggressive foreign-policy stances, Graham is perhaps best known in the Senate for compromising with Democrats on domestic issues including climate change and immigration reform — a trait that either makes him a weak Republican or a fair-minded bastion of bipartisanship, depending whom you ask.
O’Hanlon says that while “most of us consider him a long shot for the nomination,” he thinks Graham would add some much-needed foreign-policy expertise to the debates. Graham is a longtime member of the U.S. Air Force Reserve who continues to serve as a colonel.
“He’s been extremely engaged in the region, not only Iraq, but Afghanistan and other places, and probably has, to my mind, about as much expertise as anybody in the entire Congress,” O’Hanlon says. “I also admire that every year he’ll throw on uniform and go off and do his job as Air Force JAG.”
He adds, “Being a hawk is fine. He’s not a purely ideological or predictable or extremist hawk. He’s hawkish, and that’s fine.”
One critique O’Hanlon offers for Graham is that he and Sen. John McCain have been “way too focused on Benghazi.”
“I still feel he’s just made too much of it, and it’s felt, to me, extremely partisan at times, and frankly not helpful to the nation’s debate about what to do about Benghazi or any other particular crisis. It’s looking too much in the rearview mirror,” O’Hanlon says.
O’Hanlon says he has already heard rumors swirling that Graham is really gunning for some position other than president, but he hasn’t seen any proof.
“I’ve heard speculation that he may be looking for a VP spot or, more likely, looking for secretary of defense or something like that. Those rumors are flying, but they have denied them all,” O’Hanlon says.
Home court … advantage?
One factor that could help Graham as a presidential candidate is that South Carolina is usually the first state in the South to hold presidential primaries. But he might not be a sure bet at home.
In a March 2015 poll conducted by Winthrop University’s Winthrop Poll, 60 percent of all respondents said the state’s Republican senior senator should not run for president in 2016, including 65 percent of registered voters and 57 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning respondents.
It’s not that South Carolina voters hate Graham, though. A pre-Tea Party Republican, Graham handily fended off six challengers in his 2014 Senate primary, carrying 56 percent of the vote without the need for a runoff. And according to the same Winthrop Poll, 58 percent of all respondents approved of how Graham was handling his job as a U.S. senator.
Scott Huffmon, director of the Winthrop Poll, says some respondents in the poll mentioned that they like the job Graham is doing as a senator and don’t want him to leave to become president.
“Certainly he’s not stratopsheric [in his approval ratings] like Tim Scott is right now, but he’s got solid support,” Huffmon says. “There’s no truth in anybody saying he’s not supported. Yeah, there was a big Tea Party brouhaha against him, but in some ways it’s sound and fury signifying nothing.”
As for Graham’s claim that he has been “more right than wrong on foreign policy,” Huffmon says Graham might just be getting out ahead of some inevitable questions.
“I would speculate he is inoculating himself from that so that anytime anybody brings up one thing where he’s been wrong, or maybe he was an early cheerleader for going into Iraq, for every single mention, he’s inoculated himself and can look and say, ‘I’ve been right so many times,'” Huffmon says. “If he throws out at least three for every one accusation that he’s been wrong, I think he’ll be able to fend off those questions a little better than Jeb [Bush] did this week.”
There have indeed been instances when Graham held his ground on an issue — sometimes even against his own party — and was later vindicated. In 2011, when some Republicans were claiming that torture tactics provided the information necessary for Navy SEALs to find and kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, Graham told CNN, “This idea — we caught bin Laden because of waterboarding — I think is a misstatement.” In 2014, a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report found that intelligence gleaned from “enhanced interrogation” did not lead to bin Laden’s takedown.
If Graham is going to run on his foreign-policy prowess, Huffmon says he will need to go on the offensive against his opponents. In his May 18 non-announcement announcement on CBS, Graham said, “It’s not the fault of others or their lack of this or that that makes me want to run. It’s my ability in my own mind to be a good commander in chief and to make Washington work.”
Huffmon say Graham will need to drop the conciliatory tone toward the other Republican contenders if he’s in it to win it: “He is absolutely going to have to start lobbing a little bit of mud on his fellow Republicans, saying, ‘They are not up to snuff on foreign policy the way I am.’ He is going to have to criticize them if he expects to take away any of their potential votes.”
Graham’s candidacy is still not official — he says he’ll make an announcement one way or the other in his hometown of Central, S.C., on June 1 — but at last check, Graham said he was “99.9 percent sure” he would run.
Sen. Graham declined an interview for this story.