In an interview for the Public Broadcasting System’s Charlie Rose program, Sen. Lindsey Graham said it’s more likely than not that he’ll seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. What will he campaign on? More American troops to battle Islamic State, tax reform, Social Security and Medicare reform and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
The South Carolina Republican would be a long shot. He said he would seek a strong early showing in the New Hampshire primary, which features a heavy contingent of independents, followed by a win in the very next contest, which will take place in his home state.
Yet Graham, 59, espoused a number of views antithetical to Republican activists. He’s dismissive of the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual meeting that drew most Republican presidential hopefuls to Maryland in recent days. “Rand Paul or Ron Paul have won the straw poll in four of the last five years,” Graham noted. “They’re nice folks but if Rand and Ron Paul are winning the straw poll, it’s not a test of conservatism.”
A foreign policy hawk, Graham has a far more aggressive stance on national security than either Paul. He also stressed his distance on foreign policy from the ostensible Republican front-runner, Jeb Bush, saying the foreign policy speech that Bush delivered last week in Chicago “didn’t get to the heart and soul of what you have to do.”
An influential member of the Committee on Armed Services, Graham vowed to keep an open mind on the Obama administration’s overtures to Iran but stressed that he is skeptical about any nuclear deal. “Why would you do a nuclear deal while they’re destabilizing the entire Mideast?” he asked. He predicted that Islamic State would not be defeated without U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria, and said the task would require “American help, support roles, somewhere around 10,000 troops, supplementing Iraqi security forces, the Kurds, and the Anbar Sunni tribal leaders.”
Likewise, Graham supports greater U.S. involvement in stopping Russian aggression in Ukraine. Graham argues that Putin could be effectively boxed in. He envisions supplying Ukraine with American trainers (but no combat troops) and defensive weapons while ratcheting up economic sanctions against Russia. “If Putin escalates and I were the President I would grind his economy in the ground,” Graham said.
He called for entitlement reform accompanied by tax increases – through closing loopholes and tax preferences rather than by raising rates.
If Graham runs, he would clearly stake a big bet on retail politics in New Hampshire, emulating his mentor, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who conducted more than 100 town halls in New Hampshire in 1999 and 2000 and went on to upset Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the primary. “The antidote to big money is New Hampshire,” Graham said.
A successful run would make Graham the first bachelor president since James Buchanan in the 19th century. “Married people have had their chance,” he cracked. “They’ve screwed it up.”
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg columnist.