Late in the 1939 film classic “The Wizard of Oz,” one learns — probably without realizing it — a fundamental lesson of politics. Dorothy’s stalwart friends the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion come to free her from certain death at the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West. The witch’s Praetorian guards surround the noble band as she arrives to set fire to the Scarecrow. Seizing a handy bucket, Dorothy flings the water and, quite by accident, melts the Wicked Witch.

To the girl’s surprise, the captain of the guard cries: “Hail to Dorothy!” One second they’re ready to kill for the witch; the next, they delight over her smoldering remains. The lesson: To rule by fear, a leader must remain fearsome.

Hold that thought as we turn to the latest from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). Over the weekend, Graham appears to have thwarted the Trump administration’s power play in the Manhattan federal prosecutor’s office. Since when does Graham tell the president no? A human windsock, whose loyalties exquisitely reflect the gusts and lulls of power in the GOP, Graham was the wise-cracking wingman to the late Sen. John McCain when the Arizonan carried the party’s flag. But that went out the window when President Trump took over. Graham swung the full 180 degrees to become Trump’s golf buddy, footstool and dutiful apologist.

Two things have happened recently to weaken Trump’s sway over Graham — and the same shifting breezes are being felt elsewhere in the Senate. First, Graham passed his reelection primary test with flying colors on June 9, winning nearly 70 percent of the votes. Any concern the senator might have had that he must mollify the president or risk a Trump-backed challenger melted away.

Meanwhile, Trump’s own poll numbers melted down. A recent Fox News survey of registered voters found just 38 percent in favor of reelecting the president. A number in the 30s is the political equivalent of a bucket of water in the face.

Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr failed to check which way the wind was blowing before launching their scheme to replace Geoffrey Berman of the Southern District of New York with a U.S. attorney more to the president’s liking. According to Graham, no one from the White House or the Justice Department consulted him about the plan — even though he chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Activist and rapper Michael "Killer Mike" Render says black Americans could "have freedom in an instant" if they plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize. (Joel Adrian/The Washington Post)

Had they asked, they might have learned that Graham has gained his voice. There will be no Trump flunky at the head of the Southern District of New York, Graham says. While paying lip service to the presidential prerogative over U.S. attorneys, Graham made clear that any nominee for the post must pass muster with the senators from New York. This traditional Senate courtesy effectively guts the Trump-Barr maneuver, because both senators are anti-Trump Democrats. In the meantime, Berman will be replaced on an acting basis by his deputy, Audrey Strauss, in whom Graham expressed “confidence.” She’s a Democrat, too.

Admittedly, the South Carolina weathervane did not kneel and declare “Hail to Joe Biden!” (Though there is a widely viewed advertisement online in which Graham declares of the former vice president: “He is as good a man as God ever created.”) Still, things have changed. Trump once again needed someone to clean up a mess of his own making, but this time his golf buddy said no.

Watch for more such political distancing on Capitol Hill as Trump continues to splutter and flail, his campaign rudderless, his message meandering, his temper frayed. The president’s command over the Republican Senate majority has never been rooted in trust or admiration. He has ruled by fear: of his Twitter account, of his audacity, of his ruthlessness, of his passionate following. But that was before he promised a packed house in Tulsa and instead delivered a sea of empty seats.

GOP senators have tolerated Trump because they hoped he would boost their prospects. But a man at 38 percent in the polls is scant help to anyone. Indeed, Trump appears to be weighing down Republican candidates in North Carolina, Iowa, Montana, Maine, Kansas — even Texas. As things look now, Democrats need to win only half of those races, and maybe just a third, to capture the Senate.

Already, Republican senators flee on Capitol Hill when TV cameras approach. If cornered and asked about an outrageous tweet or a damning book, they act as if they’ve just been rescued from a desert island. Or they feign deafness. Or they’re just too darn busy to answer.

Bad tends to get worse in politics, and this is how it happens. The more desperately a drowning candidate needs a helping hand, the less eager people are to extend one, until the water finally takes its toll.

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