Lindsey Graham runs afoul of GOP purity police with Guantanamo stance

(Manuel Balce Ceneta - AP)
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By Dana Milbank
Sunday, March 14, 2010

It was another week in the life of Lindsey Graham (R-No Man's Land).

On Monday, Sen. James Inhofe said his Republican colleague from South Carolina had "chosen to ignore" the American people and was making a deal with President Obama that would increase the "risk of terrorist activity."

On Tuesday, the conservative Web site branded Graham a "RINO" (Republican in Name Only), not to mention a "cretin" and "a poster child for everything that is anathema to conservative Republicans."

Wednesday, it was Glenn Beck's turn to pick on the senator. "You read his stuff, it's like reading Obama's campaign speech," the Fox News host said.

Finally, on Thursday, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (Mich.), ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, accused Graham and Obama in a New York Post op-ed of a "deal with the devil" and said Graham "hasn't thought this through."

After a week like that, most of Graham's colleagues would feel as though they'd lost a tickle fight to Eric Massa. But Graham has heard it all before. "What drives my train," he told me when I reached him late in the week, "is not their approval; it's getting it right."

The fact that such a sentiment makes Graham an oddball in the Republican Party, and to some extent Congress generally, says less about him than about his colleagues. For all his supposed heresies -- on climate change, judicial nominees, immigration and now his offer to help close the Guantanamo Bay prison -- Graham had a 2009 rating of 88 percent from the American Conservative Union and a lifetime rating of 90 percent.

"The people that call me a RINO would call Ronald Reagan a RINO," he protested. "Reagan worked with Tip O'Neill to increase taxes to save Social Security." What's changed is that "purity is replacing principled compromise," he lamented, as ideology enforcers in both parties threaten primary challenges against those who stray.

Though Graham doesn't have to face primary voters until 2014, his defiance of the GOP purity police is still courageous. His Republican colleagues in Congress, wetting their pants out of fear of the tea party movement, show no sign of joining him.

But Graham's latest offer should still be taken seriously by Obama's White House, which needs a way to recover from its self-inflicted wounds over Gitmo. Obama goofed twice, missing his deadline for closing the prison and then making the ruinous choice to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed in a criminal trial in New York.

This took an eight-year-old dispute to a new level of rage. On one side, there's now Liz Cheney's absurd accusation that Justice Department lawyers are al-Qaeda sympathizers. On the other side is the ACLU, which, in demanding civilian trials for 9/11 conspirators, ran an ad morphing Obama's face into George W. Bush's.

Graham has provided Obama a way out of this standoff: Send KSM to a military tribunal in exchange for Congress abandoning legislation that would deny funding to close Gitmo. Next, the administration would work with Congress to create a "national security court," which would govern how other current and future terrorism suspects can be held in preventive detention.

Bush and his unitary executive theory lawyers rejected this approach on grounds that it would interfere with presidential authority. Obama was open to the idea last year, before some on the left pushed back, opposing any legislation that would justify detention. But the ideological purists on both sides need to compromise. As Benjamin Wittes and his Brookings Institution colleagues point out, the system is a huge mess, with federal judges making up rules as they go along in a haphazard legal framework.

It will take some courage for Obama to defy his liberal base -- but nothing like the courage Graham will need to take on the Republican purity enforcers. "I'd be glad to argue with my colleagues in the Republican Party about the problems with Guantanamo Bay," he boasted.

That's the sort of talk that won Graham censures from GOP leadership in two South Carolina counties. He reasons that he "could stay in this job forever" by telling GOP primary voters what they want to hear. But he took a different route. "I'm not job-scared," he told me, because it has come to the point where "fear stops you from acting in the best interests of the country."

Of course, Graham wouldn't mind some company in his heresy. "I'd encourage my colleagues to do what's rational and not act out of fear," he said. Most Republicans are too job-scared to join him, but there's still hope for Obama.

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