Sen. Lindsey Graham began the presidential race as a long shot and remained as such until Monday, when he finally suspended his campaign.
But Graham’s campaign was never really about winning. It was about making the case for his particular brand of conservatism to Republican voters who seem more resistant than ever to listening. In many ways, the party seems closer than ever to nominating a candidate whose worldview is diametrically opposed to Graham’s.
Graham’s platform consisted of two key planks. Sen. John McCain, his most prominent backer, described them on Monday as one, a “message of serious statesmanship and problem-solving in public affairs” and two, “forthright opposition to policies and attitudes that would endanger our country and reflect poorly on our party.”
That meant a hawkish take on foreign policy, which included the most robust and specific call for ground troops to fight ISIS in the GOP field, and a call to moderation, especially on immigration, in order to appeal to a broader base of voters.
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In both cases, he warned the consequences would be dire if the party failed to heed his prophecy. No American troops in Syria meant another 9/11. No immigration reform meant a “demographic death spiral” that would lock the GOP out of the White House.
On the national security front, Graham’s campaign began at a sensitive time for the party. When Graham first made noise about entering the race, GOP hawks were concerned that Sen. Rand Paul – who Graham frequently clashed with in Washington – could become a force in the primaries and potentially drag Republicans toward a more non-interventionist approach. Graham hoped that by participating in the race, he could help challenge Paul’s philosophy in the public arena point by point.“I got into this race to put forward a plan to win a war we cannot afford to lose, and to turn back the tide of isolationism that was rising in our party,” Graham said in a video announcing his decision on Monday. “I believe we made enormous progress in this effort.”
To Graham’s relief, Paul’s campaign never got off the ground. The rise of ISIS and especially the Paris attacks last month also refocused the party more and more on the national security issues Graham emphasized.
But he doesn’t sound happy with what’s filled the breach. Sen. Ted Cruz’s foreign policy includes some elements of Paul’s libertarianism, especially his opposition to regime change in places like Syria, where Graham has long called on the United States to oust dictator Bashar al-Assad. Then there’s Donald Trump, who shifts wildly between condemning American overreach in invading Iraq one moment and then complaining the military didn’t seize the country’s oil fields the next, while drumming up outrage against Muslims at home with misinformation and shadowy warnings. Graham, who assailed Trump throughout the race, took a moment in the last debate to personally thank Muslim Americans serving in the military.
Graham’s second argument on centrism was about policy too, but it touched at least as much on politics. Graham argued that the GOP could not win another presidential election without improving the party’s performance with, among other groups, Latino voters. In his mind, the biggest obstacle was immigration, which he sought to address by co-authoring a bipartisan reform bill with Sen. Marco Rubio that passed the Senate and died in the House.
“Now it’s not self-deportation, it’s forced-deportation!” Graham said during a tirade against Cruz and Trump at the Republican Jewish Coalition this month. “We’re literally going to round them up. That sound familiar to you? Deport them, and their American children. You think you’re going to win an election with that garbage? If you think it’s about turning out more people and keeping us on this path, you’re setting us up for oblivion.”
He also warned that on issues like abortion, the party was moving dangerously out of the mainstream in ways that could cost them the election. In the same RJC speech, Graham called out Cruz for opposing exceptions on abortion restrictions for rape, a position shared by Rubio.
“‘[I]f you are going to tell a woman who has been raped she has to carry the child of a rapist, you’re losing most Americans,” Graham said. “Good luck with that.”
Graham’s sense of humor delighted many observers, but he never had a chance at the nomination. Large swaths of the party had already written him off as a squish on core conservative issues and, more than anyone in the race, he embodied the Washington establishment that the other candidates use as a punching bag in their speeches. It didn’t help that he was relegated to the undercard debates, and thus never have had a chance to counter Trump, Cruz, and Paul head on.
He may not have the charisma, policies or organization to take the party’s fate into his own hands, but Graham wanted to make sure that no one in America (or future historians) had any doubt where he stood on the core choices facing the GOP in 2016. And because he had nothing to lose, he was able to lay out his case with a purity and earnestness that no one in the field could match. On that front, at least, his campaign was an unqualified success.