Lindsey Graham tries, fails to justify breaking his word

Lindsey Graham thinks he has a good excuse for breaking his word and abandoning his stated principles. He's actually failed spectacularly.
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., during an event at the White House on Nov. 6, 2019.
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., during an event at the White House on Nov. 6, 2019.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

With six months remaining before the 2016 presidential election, Senate Republicans refused to even consider President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, even after some GOP senators had recommended him as a consensus choice. "Let the people decide," the party argued, incessantly, as a way to justify its unprecedented blockade.

With six weeks remaining before the 2020 presidential election, Senate Republicans are brazenly abandoning their purported principles, expressing indifference to their disinterest in honor and integrity. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), for example, wrote an op-ed in 2016, defending deeply-held beliefs that he's conveniently thrown in the trash.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) went so far as to argue in 2016 that a Supreme Court confirmation process during an election would imperil "the very health of our republic." Now, the North Carolina Republican not only disagrees with his own principles, he's vowed to vote for Donald Trump's nominee -- before even learning whom the president may choose.

But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is in an ignominious league of his own.

When Senate Republicans refused to even hold a hearing on Obama-nominee Judge Merrick Garland, Graham said it was too close to the election even though at the time of late Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February it was roughly nine months away. “I want you to use my words against me,” Graham said at the time. “If there’s a Republican president in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said let’s let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination.” He has since reissued that promise several times over. In 2018, he said that following a potential seat vacancy in the final year of Trump’s term the Senate would “wait to the next election.”

And yet, despite these commitments, Graham is breaking his word.

By way of an explanation, the South Carolina Republican, facing a real re-election challenge this year, tweeted his defense: (1) Senate Democrats "changed the rules to allow a simple majority vote for Circuit Court nominees" in 2013; and (2) Democrats and unnamed journalists "conspired to destroy the life of Brett Kavanaugh" in 2018.

In a follow-up tweet, Graham added, "Democrats chose to set in motion rules changes to stack the court at the Circuit level and they chose to try to destroy Brett Kavanaugh’s life to keep the Supreme Court seat open. You reap what you sow."

The Kavanaugh argument is difficult to take seriously. The prospective justice was, after all, credibly accused of lying about sexual misconduct, and he faced bipartisan opposition during his confirmation vote. For Graham to say he's abandoning his own principles and stated commitments because Kavanaugh's feelings were hurt is, to put it mildly, unpersuasive.

But I was even more interested in the more substantive of the GOP senator's two points: Republicans can ram through Trump's latest high court nominee as payback for Democrats abusing the judicial confirmation rules in 2013. I'm not sure the timeline is coherent -- if Graham were truly outraged by the events of seven years ago, why did he make the aforementioned public commitments in 2016 and 2018? -- but let's revisit what actually happened in 2013.

As longtime readers may recall, there were multiple vacancies at the time on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the nation’s most important benches, and President Obama nominated three qualified jurists, each of whom enjoyed majority support in the Senate.

Republicans in the chamber, however, blocked the trio, filibustering each of the nominations.

GOP senators didn’t raise any specific objections to the nominees, but rather, said they didn’t want President Obama to appoint anyone to the appellate court, ever. Republicans presented a demand never before heard in American history: the Senate must ignore the vacancies on one of the nation’s most important courts, indefinitely, because a minority of the chamber says so.

When Democrats noted how insane that was, GOP senators, including Lindsey Graham, effectively dared the majority to do something about it.

So, left with no choice, the Democratic majority restored the rules to reflect the way the Senate used to function before the radicalization of Republican politics: judicial nominees for district and appellate courts could be confirmed by majority rule. This was achieved through a maneuver known as the “nuclear option” -- a strategy Republican senators themselves crafted and proposed a decade earlier.

Graham looks back at these events as if he and his GOP brethren were the victims. That's madness. Republicans perpetrated an abuse in 2013; they were not the victims. For the willfully forgetful Judiciary Committee chairman to look back at these developments as an excuse for even more abuses is hopelessly bonkers -- and insulting to those who remember what actually happened seven years ago.

Graham's 2020 rival, Jamie Harrison, wrote over the weekend, "My grandpa always said that a man is only as good as his word. Senator Graham, you have proven your word is worthless."

If the incumbent has a credible defense that proves this criticism wrong, he hasn't yet thought of it.