Graham provides model of what
parties should be, but are not
By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
THERE’S something reassuring about sitting and talking with a U.S. senator and thinking, “This guy is smarter than I am.”
Even better thoughts: “He’s smarter than most other senators, and the nation sees that. And he represents South Carolina.”
Lindsey Graham makes us all look good up there. That’s a rare and welcome thing.
It’s not just about being smart. Fritz Hollings was and is sharp as a razor, but in ways that turn a lot of people off. It’s sad to say, but too many voters would rather vote for “folks like me” than above-average intelligence. If you doubt this, let me introduce you to a few hundred office-holders.
Mr. Graham actually manages to be humble and unassuming (which Fritz could never do) while being erudite. That’s a neat trick. It’s so neat in this case, I don’t even think it’s a trick. (To help you tell the difference, when John Edwards
does it, it’s a trick.)
Remember my column last week, in which I wrote about the Emory University study that showed the brains of political partisans are wired to reinforce their prejudices — that their gray matter actually produces a big shot of pleasure when they refuse to see the other side’s point?
We centrists must have a similar mechanism that kicks in when politicians do see the other side, and even work across the partisan divide. When somebody mentions fighting for a good cause alongside both John McCain and Joe Lieberman, a flood of endorphins breaches my levees of cynicism, and I think, “What a smart guy.”
But partisans should think the same thing — especially those Republicans who had such a fit when Sen. Graham joined the Gang of 14 to force a compromise that stopped the “nuclear option” from being dropped over filibusters and judicial nominees.
Boy, were they ever wrong. And it was obvious at the time that they were wrong, even from their skewed, one-sided perspective. Sure, Democrats were high-fiving because the GOP hadn’t changed Senate rules to prevent filibusters, but they were just as blind. From the time the seven Republicans and seven Democrats made their deal, it was impossible for Democrats to carry off a successful filibuster of a qualified nominee. They couldn’t overcome cloture without the Democrats in the Gang, who had promised their colleagues — such things are taken seriously by senators — they wouldn’t back a filibuster in the absence of “extraordinary circumstances.”
And there simply isn’t anything extraordinary about Bush nominees not seeing the world the way Democrats do. They would need something more substantial than a political difference over something like abortion.
The practical upshot for Republicans? They gained two conservative Supreme Court justices.
“Nobody really got tricked,” Sen. Graham said. Each of the seven Democrats had a sound political reason to be there. Besides, at least six of them have constituencies closer to his than to Ted Kennedy’s.
They came out of it fine, partly because “nobody on either leadership team wanted to take that vote.” As for Sen. Graham himself, “It helped me personally immensely within the body.” Contrary to what was being said publicly, “Everything about this deal was known to both leadership teams…. There was a big difference between the rhetoric in the morning and the negotiations in the afternoon.”
The important things to him were that “The institution fared well; the president fared well,” and so did his nominees. Both John Roberts and Samuel Alito enjoyed relatively smooth roads to favorable up-or-down votes.
But the fact that 14 senators had the common sense and guts to save the partisan majority from itself yielded benefits beyond that, and not just for Republicans.
Once the Senate was “back in business,” National Guard and Reserve personnel got medical benefits. “There would be just no way we would have had Tricare by now” without the Gang’s deal.
It also enabled Sen. Graham to play a key role in holding the Bush administration accountable for the way it treats captured enemy combatants. “We got the Congress off the sidelines and into the War on Terror,” he said. “We had been AWOL.”
“I trust President Bush,” he said later. “I like President Bush.” But there’s just “no substitute for checks and balances.”
He doesn’t let you forget he’s a Republican. When he speaks of his party’s recent troubles, he says, “The only thing we’ve got going for us is the Democrats, and don’t underestimate them.” Partisan or not, I did enjoy that one.
What I really liked, though, was the soliloquy with which he ended the meeting, after being asked about the political dangers of his having been photographed with Hillary Clinton. It was a nice statement of what political parties ought to be, but are not. In fact, I’ll just turn the rest of the column over to him. Take it, Senator:
“There are people on both sides that can’t be happy unless the other side’s disappointed. The way some people judge political success: Is my enemy unhappy? The way I judge political success: Is my country better off, and is my party on the right track?
“My country is better off when the Guard and Reserve families and those who serve in the Guard and Reserve have health care they can count on. The country will be better off if a manufacturing company (he and Sen. Clinton have started and jointly lead a new Manufacturing Caucus) can stay and make a profit and not have to leave to go overseas….
“If she came here and said something nice about me, I would consider it a compliment. And I would return the compliment. And in the next sentence I would say… I like her, but I don’t want her to be president… because she’ll bring an agenda to the table that I don’t agree with in terms of, you know, the whole.
“But I’m not going to say anything bad about her, because I do like her, I think she’s smart, I enjoy working with her, and… if … the only way I can win is to have to run down people I know, I mean, have to say things about people I know not to be true, I don’t want the job.
“If that’s the kind of senator you want, I don’t want the job.”
Well, it’s not the kind I want. So stick around.