Sen. Lindsey O. Graham tackled a question that many have asked since John McCain’s death Saturday: Who will fill the role of traditional conservative, particularly on national security, that has been held by the Arizona Republican for the past three decades?
“The void to be filled by John’s passing is more than I can fill. Don’t look to me to replace this man,” Graham (R-S.C.) said in a tearful 15-minute speech remembering his mentor, calling on others “to follow in his footsteps. If you want to help me, join the march.”
It’s a remarkable but painfully honest admission from a senator who spent the past 15 years as the junior partner in the fight to steer the nation to a more hawkish position on foreign policy and the Republican Party to a more welcoming stance toward women and minorities.
McCain filled so many spaces in the GOP’s intellectual firmament that, as Graham and other colleagues said, no single Republican is poised to fill that role. Democrats have grown increasingly concerned during President Trump’s tenure that the normally tough conservative voices on issues such as Russia, the Middle East and North Korea have fallen silent as the onetime reality-TV star has rewritten the GOP playbook.
As Trump has run roughshod over his own top advisers — ignoring bipartisan and independent views that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections to try to help him — many Republicans have tended to sit back and allow McCain to speak out for their worldview.
Even as he fought brain cancer in Arizona, absent from the Senate since December, McCain regularly stepped to the fore and delivered the strongest condemnation of Trump’s courtship of Russian President Vladimir Putin through written statements.
Now, those same Republicans need to speak out more forcefully to honor their leader or else cede their party’s mantle to Trump’s worldview for decades to come.
“There’s no doubt he’s leaving a void, kind of an irreplaceable void,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said Tuesday. Sullivan, a Marine infantry reserve officer, has been named the new chairman of the International Republican Institute, replacing McCain at an organization designed to promote democracy and human rights abroad.
It was the last step in a nearly four-year shepherding of Sullivan to get him to share McCain’s worldview. Two weeks after Sullivan was sworn into the Senate, McCain approached and told him that, as the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, he could appoint members to the Naval Academy’s Board of Visitors and he wanted the freshman on the board.
Later that month, McCain told Sullivan that he wanted the newcomer to take a lead role on Asia-Pacific issues, a big deal for an Alaskan, and travel that part of the world on McCain’s famous congressional delegations.
“One quality of leadership is being a serious mentor, and there’s nobody who did that, who worked that, like McCain,” Sullivan said.
McCain’s committee now boasts eight members of the Republican 2014 class, some of the staunchest military hawks in the Senate.
The IRI’s new board includes Sullivan, Graham and three other recently elected senators, some of the last moves of a dying senator leaving his imprint on a new class.
“Was he thinking about kind of cultivating, working and getting in place the next generation of senators who think like him on foreign policy and national security? Yes,” Sullivan said.
But McCain’s biggest role, in terms of the Senate, might have been as a bipartisan dealmaker on some of the most contentious issues of the day.
That outreach across the aisle has been in steep decline in recent years, particularly among Republicans who have seen their colleagues face defeat or incredibly tough primaries because of their moderate views.
“We’re headed for a place where compromise itself is a disqualification for office, that people who are willing to listen to the other side and try to find common ground — which he did — are endangered, literally endangered,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine).
Graham has been on his own wild ride in his views toward the president, leaving some baffled and wondering if he had drifted away from McCain.
Originally the loudest congressional critic of Trump during 2016 — he ran against him in the presidential primary — Graham has grown closer to the president, speaks with him regularly and often plays golf with him.
McCain brought up the issue in May during a visit that Graham initially believed would be his last conversation with his friend.
“Help him where you can; just don’t get sucked into all” these investigations about Russia and 2016, McCain told Graham.
“Roger,” Graham replied.
He recounted that story in a news briefing after his floor speech Tuesday. “So I’m going to help him where I can and not get sucked into all the other drama,” Graham told reporters.
That meeting, at McCain’s ranch outside Sedona, began with a strong admonition about keeping up their mutual fights. “You’ve got to keep it going, boy,” McCain told him.
“I’ll do my best,” Graham said.
The late senator led three major efforts at overhauling immigration laws, but each ended in failure because Republicans walked away amid political uprising from their conservative base. Graham said McCain taught him a lesson that will determine when immigration legislation ever gets approved.
“The other side has to get something, too,” McCain told him, as Graham recounted during his floor speech.
As the South Carolinian spoke, nearly 20 senators from each party gathered in the chamber, most sitting around Graham regardless of their regular seats. They knew he was McCain’s closest friend in the Senate and wanted to hear him out.
Graham stood next to McCain’s desk, draped in black with a vase of white roses on top. He ended with a final plea to join the march.
“There is a little John McCain in all of us,” he said, “and the little John McCain practiced by a lot of people can make this a really great nation.”