When Lindsey Graham talks, the political world, generally, yawns. Graham, while a very well-regarded figure from his Senate perch, is not particularly regarded at all in the 2016 presidential race that he recently joined.
Graham is an asterisk -- or close to it -- in polling in every early state (except for his home state of South Carolina) and nationally. He's not even close to making the stage in the first Republican debate set for August. He's generally regarded as a cause candidate, with that cause being to represent the most hawkish views on foreign policy and national security against attacks by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
Okay, fine. But if you stop and actually listen to some of what Graham is saying -- particularly on the subject of bipartisanship -- you realize that he's one of the most interesting candidates in the field and one of the few who can genuinely sell himself as a change agent.
Here's Graham answering a question from "Meet The Press" host Chuck Todd about how he would address political polarization in Washington:
I think there's a market for a better way. When I talked to that young guy there, I said, you're going to have to work a little longer, pal. If I'm president, I'm going to ask you to work a little bit longer. What do people do between 65 and 67, they work two years longer. Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neil showed us what to do. I'm making a bet here. I'm making a bet that you can talk about problem-solving in a Republican primary and still get the nomination. I'm making a bet that you can openly embrace working with Democrats and still get the nomination. I'm making a bet that with a war-weary public, you can rally them to go over there and keep the fight over there before it comes here. Now, if I lose those bets it doesn't mean America is lost, it just means I fell short. To a young person in politics, listen to what I'm doing here and see if it makes sense to you. There is a growing desire by the public at large to stop the B.S. I feel it, I sense it, and I'm running on the idea that if you elect me, I'll do whatever is necessary to defend the nation. I'm running not as a candidate for a single party but for a great nation.
If you believe the American people when they say they want leaders who are willing to work with one another and take positions because they believe in them not because the policies are popular, it's hard for me to imagine a better message than that paragraph from Graham above.
And, not for nothing, Graham's recent life in politics suggests that he actually walks some of his talk. Graham was one of the leading voices in support of the comprehensive immigration reform proposal that passed the Senate in June 2013 only to die in the House. Unlike most of the Republican senators involved in that effort *** cough *** MARCO RUBIO *** cough ***, Graham stood steadfastly behind his support for immigration reform -- despite the fact that it drew him five primary challengers who cited it as exhibit A that he simply wasn't conservative enough for South Carolina.
Graham won that primary last June with 56 percent of the vote. How? Here's how The Atlantic's Molly Ball diagnosed it: "Graham talked about his support for a path to citizenship at nearly every campaign stop, touting his work with Democrats on the issue as evidence of his willingness to solve tough problems in Washington. By his calculus, voters would accept a difference of opinion, but they wouldn't accept insincerity."
That's pretty compelling stuff, right? A guy who not only says he is committed to work across the aisle but actually has done it -- and owned it?
And yet, Graham is where he is: an asterisk in the polls, classified, already, in the "also-ran" pile of GOP presidential candidates.
There's a case to be made that it's early in the process and Graham still has plenty of time to rise above his currently meager station in the polls and so on and so forth. True, if unlikely, based on the history of these sorts of races.
To me, though, Graham's candidacy is a sort of campaign thought experiment: What if politics produced a candidate that had lots and lots of what the public said it wanted but in a somewhat unlikely package (a Southern-drawling lifetime politician) and without the buzz and fanfare that surrounds the so-called "top tier"?
Could a candidate like that possibly hope to break through?