Why Lindsey Graham is holding out on Chuck Hagel

February 11, 2013

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R) knows that he can't stop Chuck Hagel's confirmation as secretary of defense -- at this point only Hagel, President Obama or a huge revelation can do that -- but he signaled Sunday that he is keeping his options open when it comes to a confirmation vote.


South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Graham indicated that he is reserving the right to put a hold on the nominations of Hagel and John O. Brennan, Obama's choice to be the next CIA director, until the administration provides more details on the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that left four U.S. diplomats dead.

“I don’t know what the president did that evening. I don’t know if he ever called anyone,” Graham said on CBS's "Face the Nation." “This was incredibly mismanaged. And what we know now — this seems to be a very disengaged president.”

While there's no doubt that Graham does genuinely believe that the administration has not been forthcoming regarding what actually happened in Benghazi, there's also more going here that better explains -- and contextualizes -- his approach to the Hagel and Brennan confirmations.

Remember that Graham is up for reelection in 2014 and has been, for the better part of his first term, someone whom conservatives have viewed skeptically -- particularly regarding his support for comprehensive immigration reform (Lindsey Graham-nesty!) and his comments on climate change.

Recent primary losses by the likes of Sens. Dick Lugar (Ind.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Bob Bennett (Utah)  -- not to mention the serious primary fight that Graham's best pal John McCain faced in 2010 -- all had one thing in common: a well-regarded senator in Washington ran into a relatively unknown conservative who painted the incumbent as insufficiently loyal to the party's first principles. (McCain might have had a much bigger problem if conservatives hadn't settled on former congressman -- and terrible candidate -- J.D. Hayworth as their preferred standard-bearer.)

Graham, who is one of the most savvy politicians operating in Washington these days, is well aware of that track record for GOP senators willing to occasionally thumb their noses at the party base. And he knows that lots and lots of conservatives in South Carolina regard him that way.

Fighting the administration like hell -- particularly on the former Republican Hagel -- then is a way for Graham to prove to (or, maybe remind) the party base that while they may not be with him on every issue, he remains a committed conservative. Graham is making sure voters know that even if they don't like him, they like Obama even less. It's a classic case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

And Graham's stand on Hagel and Brennan comes as conservatives in South Carolina continue to search -- so far without success -- for someone to run against him. While state Sen. Tom Davis, whose name had been bouncing around for months, decided not to run, another state lawmaker named Lee Bright is now considering a bid.

To be clear: Graham's opposition to Hagel/Brennan is not solely due to political concerns. But, neither is it the result purely of his desire to get more information about Benghazi. As always -- or almost always -- political and policy concerns are deeply intertwined here.

Understanding how those two worlds can work to strengthen his overall position is what makes Graham a very good politician -- and is what may keep him from following in the unenviable footsteps of Lugar and Bennett come 2014.

Obama to focus SOTU on economy: President Obama will keep his State of the Union speech Tuesday focused on the economy, even as issues of guns and illegal immigration have emerged as key priorities early in his second term.

The Post's Scott Wilson reports that Obama will again call for investment in infrastructure and research to help the United States compete in an increasingly global economy. He will also focus on the jobs picture after unemployment ticked up last month.

“Our single biggest remaining challenge is to get our economy in a place where the middle class is feeling less squeezed, where incomes sustain families,” said a senior administration official. The official added: "His project is not complete, by any means."

The economy has also been the preeminent focus of Obama's four previous addresses.

Fixbits:

Obama will push for a reduction in nuclear arms.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) says the GOP's "existential crisis" is overblown.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) is still balking at the assault weapons ban.

Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) is very close to getting into the 2014 Pennsylvania governor's race, which would pit her against Gov. Tom Corbett (R).

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) says that his Kentucky colleague, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), probably won't face a primary challenge.

Missouri Republicans have nominated state Rep. Jason Smith (R) for the special election to replace Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.). Smith will be a heavy favorite.

House Democrats think they can put House Republicans on the defensive on guns.

The Nevada state assemblyman who was recently arrested for threatening to shoot the speaker of the assembly has now been arrested for domestic battery.

Ron Paul wants to take control of RonPaul.com, which is currently run by his supporters.

Must-reads:

"Marco Rubio emerges as GOP’s star. But is he the answer for Republicans?" -- Karen Tumulty and Manuel Roig-Franzia, Washington Post

"Mark Sanford's confessional campaign" -- Alex Isenstadt, Politico

"Many 2011 federal budget cuts had little real-world effect" -- David A. Fahrenthold, Washington Post

"Obama keeps newspaper reporters at arm’s length" -- Paul Farhi, Washington Post

"Giffords Eases Steadily Into New Life, and Cause" -- Jennifer Steinhauer, New York Times

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Sean Sullivan | February 10, 2013