Lindsey Graham

So, we had a sighting of the old Lindsey Graham over the weekend.

On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” South Carolina’s senior senator gently chastised his golfing buddy, the president of the United States, over his handling of a national emergency.

Graham offered his sympathy to all the people who’ve lost their homes, or died, in the most recent California fires. Which is the first thing the president should have done.

Instead, President Trump over the weekend tweeted threats to cut off funding to a state suffering a devastating natural disaster.

Graham ever-so-gently tried to walk all that back.

“Now is not the time to talk about cutting off money, with all due respect,” Graham said. “We’re going to help our friends in California. They need help.”

That was the right sentiment, but it left some people in South Carolina confused.

Is this reasonable public official the same guy who pitched a hissy fit at the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, a tirade that — at least temporarily — won him the love of conservatives who’ve been after his scalp for a decade?

It’s all so confusing. Is he with Trump or not? Because the president isn’t big on people who are just 90 percent loyal.

And neither are his devotees.

So, Graham probably needs to stick with one side.

A dangerous game

Neal Thigpen, the veteran South Carolina political scientist, has always held Graham in high regard.

He considers the senator heir to the mantle of both Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings — that is, conservative like Strom, yet independent like Fritz. But he can’t figure out what Graham is doing now, besides alienating longtime supporters.

“It’s never been the Republicans who came to his rescue. It was always the Democrats in the general election,” Thigpen says. “He might have strengthened himself with the people who’ve tried to knock him out for years, but he may have severely wounded himself with the moderate Republicans and Democrats.”

That’s a polite understatement.

Graham’s antics have drawn national attention in recent weeks. Some people accused him of auditioning for attorney general, naturally, but he says that’s not it. Others believe he is simply trying to avoid a contested primary in 2020, when he’s up for re-election.

More likely.

But Thigpen notes that it’s foolishly optimistic to believe no one will challenge Graham. He can just hear the stump speech now, when some tea party-type reminds people of the “old Lindsey” who conservatives could never trust, and who is lurking somewhere beneath the surface.

Seems like a sure bet.

Graham is playing a dangerous game, ingratiating himself with the mercurial Trump — who’s unable to take any criticism and apt to turn on him at a moment’s notice. After all, he is the guy who once gave out Graham’s private cellphone number at a campaign stop.

Does Graham really want to tie his future to that sort of unpredictability?

He’d get better odds at one of Trump’s casinos.

Playing with fire

Graham has said he’s just trying to remain relevant, and hinted that he’s trying to manage the president a bit.

Because that’s worked out so well in the past.

But he is trying to do just that. After the midterms, Graham said on Fox — Trump’s must-see TV — that we have to learn from elections, and he expects the president will change his tone.

And then Trump threatened the entire state of California.

Of course, in that same interview Graham slipped and again showed a bit of his old self. He noted that the election illustrated the Republican Party has a problem with suburban women.

As in, they won’t vote for the GOP.

He tried to soften the message with some lawyerly hair-splitting disguised as praise for the president. Without him, Graham said, “We wouldn’t have had had the night we had.”

That’s one way to put it. This is another:

“Certainly while Trump is president, Republicans are going to have a suburban women problem,” Thigpen says.

Graham knows that. After all, he’s the guy who noted his party has a problem with Hispanic voters (duh) and once lamented that the country isn’t generating enough angry white guys for the GOP to stay in business.

Although Trump is giving it an admirable try.

Lindsey Graham has survived in South Carolina politics a long time doing things his way. But now he’s playing with the sort of fire that makes those in California seem almost manageable.

If he isn’t careful, Graham’s going to get burned.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.