It’s tough being Lindsey Graham. The South Carolina senator has been running for president for almost four months now, and all he has to show for it is a 0.2 percent average in national polls, putting him at the bottom of the crowded field. (The only candidate he’s managed to out-campaign so far is Jim Gilmore, who isn’t actually campaigning.)
Graham has spent the entirety of his career in Congress building himself up as a hawkish expert on national security issues, and he’s been overshadowed completely by his equally hawkish sprat of a colleague, Marco Rubio. He’s carefully cultivated the trappings of establishment credibility and Beltway “seriousness,” only to see Republican primary voters flock to “outsider” candidates who probably aren’t even on a first-name basis with Wolf Blitzer. Even in his home state, he’s barely registering among the Republican faithful.
Faced with all these disappointments, one has to wonder: what point could there possibly be to Lindsey Graham 2016? What keeps this seemingly moribund enterprise in existence? What rationale does Graham have for staying in the race?
It turns out that the answer is “trolling Ted Cruz.” According to Politico, Graham’s mission at this point is to set himself on a collision course with Cruz over Planned Parenthood funding and the looming government shutdown:
Graham said in an interview he's prepared to confront Cruz directly as the chamber braces for a rhetorical assault from the Texas senator, with Graham arguing that a shutdown would be futile and politically damaging. It’s an opportunity, Graham says, “to tell my side of the story here.” And, the senator with the syrupy Southern drawl admits, it won’t be because he thinks it’s going to give him a bounce in the polls.
“I’m running to be the president of the United States. And a certain amount of honesty comes with that,” Graham said in an interview. “Shutting down the government, I think it hurts our overall cause and I don't mind telling people that. If I’m going to be a good nominee and a good president, I’ve got to tell you what I believe.”
The confrontation with Cruz has to come on the Senate floor because Graham’s abysmal poll numbers have relegated him to the undercard primary debates. But Graham is right about two things: shutting down the government absolutely hurts the Republican cause; and saying as much will definitely not help him in the polls.
Cruz is pushing Congress towards this shutdown not because he thinks it will work, but because it will aggravate people like Lindsey Graham. The entire Cruz campaign strategy is to mobilize conservative voters by contrasting himself with the Republican establishment, which he says is corrupt and unwilling to fight for conservative principles. That anti-establishment sentiment is proving to be powerful among Republican primary voters, who are excitedly backing candidates with zero political experience and extreme policy proposals. Conservatives seem to be in a “burn it all down” state of mind, and a plea for a modicum of political sanity from an establishment creature like Graham isn’t likely to resonate. If anything, it helps Cruz make his point.
But Graham needs something to keep himself busy and remind people that he’s actively seeking the presidency, and a very public feud with someone like Cruz is an easy way to snap up some much-needed media attention. Regardless of how it plays out, the rest of us can gawk in wonder at the surreal state of Republican politics, in which a presidential candidate who wants to reinvade Iraq, send troops to Syria, and go to war with Iran can present himself as a voice for political sanity.