CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Sen. Lindsey O. Graham makes no apology for elbowing his way to the front of the Social Security debate, arguing for significant tax increases and benefit cuts to salvage a program whose long-term solvency, he says, requires nothing less.
It's a chancy, even audacious, move for a politician with only two years in the seniority-driven Senate. But the South Carolina Republican says his journey from his parents' hardscrabble pool hall to the halls of Congress has perfectly positioned him to confront liberals and conservatives with tough realities.
In a chamber full of millionaires, he talks movingly of how Social Security once sustained his family. Surrounded by Democrats who refuse to trim benefits -- and Republicans who refuse to raise taxes -- he tells both sides they must compromise to safeguard a vital program. The public, he likes to say, will reward courage and leadership, although many of his colleagues remain dubious.
"People in my business are afraid of voters," Graham told a civic group lunching recently in this coastal city. "If I get afraid to tell you the truth, then I need to quit."
Graham, 49, is struggling to win fellow lawmakers to his side, but rival proposals for Social Security are faring no better or worse. They have received less attention than his plan, and many rely on heavy government borrowing, which Graham derides as a "free-lunch" cop-out.
With congressional leaders and committee chairmen adopting a wait-and-see strategy, Graham has stepped into the void, landing on TV talk shows and magazine covers, and creating buzz in Capitol corridors. It's a big step for a small-town southern lawyer who first gained prominence at Bill Clinton's impeachment trial, where he burnished an image as a prosecutor who was more level-headed than most, but tough and partisan all the same.
Now, making maximum use of his folksy demeanor and ample ambition, he is staking his legislative fortunes to a politically painful plan that he insists he can sell to Congress and the American people. After all, he has a special weapon he deploys in every interview and speech: the story of a sister in need.
Help for an Orphaned Teen
Whether his audience is black college students, Republican activists or the Charleston Exchange Club's varied membership, Graham starts his pitch on Social Security the same way. "When I was 21, my mom died," he begins. "She was 52." His father died the following year at age 69, he continues, leaving little but the family's liquor store/pool hall. ("Everything I know about politics I learned there," he says).
Also left behind was Graham's 13-year-old sister, who moved in with an aunt and uncle living on modest wages from a textile mill. Over the next decade, Social Security survivor benefits helped feed, clothe and educate her. Graham helped support his sister once his law career got started, and he became her legal guardian. The Social Security benefits, he tells every audience, "made a world of difference to my family."
His account resonates with many listeners, some of whom have similar tales. "My dad died when I was 19," Charleston real estate agent Ruthie Smythe said in an interview after Graham spoke at a dinner for GOP activists. "I got survivor benefits until I was 22. They helped me go to college." She said she would be willing to pay higher taxes for Social Security "if it will work, if it will begin the change."
Graham uses his sister's story to inoculate himself against attacks from the left and right. "To my Democratic friends: Don't lecture me about Social Security," he told the Charleston GOP audience. "I know as much about it as anybody."
Then, turning to suggestions that entitlement programs are too costly, he said: "This idea that the Republican Party is made up of a bunch of rich people who don't care about poor people is a bunch of junk."
The Graham Plan
Graham's plan would raise Social Security taxes for high-income earners, and reduce their eventual retirement benefits. It would hold low-income Americans harmless.
Workers now pay a 6.2 percent tax (matched by their employers) on their first $90,000 in annual wages. Graham would raise that cap to $160,00, costing high-wage earners an extra $4,340 a year. They should accept the burden, he says, "with the whole idea that you're helping people less fortunate than you."