I got to see an old friend the other day.
U.S. Sen Lindsey Graham dropped by The Post and Courier to meet with our editorial staff. He talked about how dangerous it would be for the president to pull out of Afghanistan ... and the urgent need for Republicans to “acknowledge that the science of climate change is real, and fight over the solutions” ... and how the Trump administration had furthered the Obama administration’s mistake by canceling MOX ... and how “the Dems want to go too far; we don’t want to go far enough” on guns … and the need to work with Democrats to find solutions on immigration and the refugee crisis — and everything.
It was just like old times, back when everybody loved Mr. Graham except the most extreme extremists on the far right. Back before he became best buds with the president, and those most extreme extremists on the far right fell in love with him, and the most extreme extremists on the far left went apoplectic, and the half of the people from the mid-right over to mid-left started asking: What happened to Lindsey?
So I asked what I should tell those people, and his initial response was both fair and not particularly helpful: “Nobody asked me this when we were helping Obama; that was just patriotism.”
He reminded us that after George W. Bush defeated his friend John McCain, he worked to help President Bush succeed. And after Barack Obama defeated Sen. McCain, he worked in several areas to help President Obama succeed, particularly immigration reform and the Supreme Court nominations of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. “The one thing I’ve been consistent about is trying to be helpful,” he said.
But remarkably quickly, he pivoted to the answer I thought he might give in a private conversation but didn’t really expect in a public one.
“The Trump administration is real,” he said. “I’d like to have a say about what they do on things that I care about. The president beat me. So I’m humble enough to know that he won and I lost. I’ve got to like him. In spite of all the drama, there’s a guy down in there who wants to do good for the country. Being in his orbit personally matters. … What I’m trying to do is have influence on a presidency that can do great things or make big mistakes.”
Mr. Graham said the president listens to him because “he sees me as a guy that wants him to be successful and that will interact honestly.”
“I’m gonna use my voice wisely and strategically and try to help President Trump any way I can,” he said, noting that he had persuaded the president not to fire Robert Mueller and to change course on pulling out of Syria. After a long pause, he added: “And if you don’t like him, don’t vote for him.”
And after another long pause, he added: “I get the downside. I do. Trust me. I’ve lost to him. But the other side seems to be going nuts in a different way.”
If you looked hard enough in his speeches and legislative proposals, you could have found the familiar Lindsey Graham all along — the thoughtful, reasonable consensus-builder who’s always looking to make a win-win deal, rather than an I-win-you-lose deal. But the story line on Mr. Graham these days is, understandably, his 180-degree turn on the president. So it’s the cheerleading quotes that make the headlines and get retweeted by liberals who now love to hate him, and by conservatives who now love to love him.
He acknowledged his relationship with Senate Democrats has suffered since he attacked them for attacking now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. But he said they’re still friends, and he’ll continue trying to “just keep doing deals” with them. So that was encouraging, because whether you think he’s sold out or not, he’s still a too-rare member of Congress who recognizes that compromise is not only acceptable but essential, and who tries on a wide variety of issues to find ways to bridge the rapidly widening partisan gulf.
Before we said goodbye, he made the point that throughout history, people have frequently thought they were living in the worst of times, and they’ve always gotten through it. Today is no different, with one exception: weapons of mass destruction. “This,” he said, “is why I want to stay close to the president.”
Cindi Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Facebook or Twitter @CindiScoppe.