Political Players: Sen. Graham Sees A "Schizophrenic" State of the Union

The following is an Atlantic interview with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. A key Republican dealmaker--and close friend of John McCain's--Graham says it "takes two to tango" on bipartisanship and

- Attacks President Obama's critique of the Supreme Court, his stimulus plan, and his handling of health care.

- Argues that immigration reform should happen, and shouldn't mean amnesty "like Ronald Reagan did."

- Says Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are "in a good position" for 2012, but Sarah Palin has "a big following."

- Believes South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer's "stray animals" comment was "inappropriate and wrong."

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: Wednesday night, the president spoke again about changing the tone of politics, about reaching out to the other side.  You said you know bipartisanship when you see it. Why haven't we seen it here?

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, first, there's the health care bill that was never designed to create bipartisanship.  They had a goal of expanding government's role in health care, and they were not going to abandon that goal. Quite frankly, what they did was partisan in terms of tone and substance.
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The president's call for bipartisanship--I agree with him.  But it takes two to tango. I've tried to work with this administration on energy and climate change legislation that truly would be bipartisan, and I appreciate that part of his speech.  But the one thing that makes it difficult, some of these public addresses are more confrontational than I think they should be.

What he did with the Supreme Court--publicly chastising the Supreme Court, where they can't respond, was I thought an awkward and inappropriate moment. So the speech was mixed and a little schizophrenic at times. And I would urge the President to be consistent in his tone here.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: On health care, the White House will say, we dropped the public option, we made the bill deficit neutral, we're open to tort reform. So what specifically can the president offer on the substance of the bill that he hasn't offered?

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Number one, there was no real tort reform in this bill. Being open to it and doing it are two different things. There's nothing in this bill that will bring about ample legal reform. It's not deficit neutral in my view, it's a gimmick. I think we're not going to cut Medicare by $480 billion. That's one of the ways you pay for the bill. I don't think there's a snowball's chance in hell that would ever happen. This is Enron accounting.

And to get deficit neutrality, you have to raise taxes by $500 billion. So you're never going to get any Republicans to reform health care when the components are reducing Medicare spending to create new programs and raise taxes. We don't need to raise taxes to reform health care.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: Do you agree with your colleague, Senator Jim DeMint, that health care should be Obama's Waterloo?

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: No. I think what Jim was saying is that he has made this his signature issue, and he's proposing ideas that are unacceptable to most Americans, not just the Republican Party.

What I would suggest the Republican and Democratic parties do is get a room after Scott Brown has sworn in, and with the Republican leadership there, meet with the White House in a sincere effort to find a more modest way forward on health care.

I would urge the president to do that.  And if he does reach out to Republicans, the spotlight shines on us then, and I think most Republicans understand that this bill needed to be taken down, it was sort of a monstrosity, and sleazy in the way it came about. But taking the bill down and doing nothing is not what I want. I'd rather try to start over and find some middle ground, and I think most Republicans would too.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: Do you think the stimulus was a failure?

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Yeah, it was a failure on a lot of fronts. It was a missed opportunity to really be bipartisan. Senator McCain had a proposal of 400 and something billion dollars in spending. The difference between 400 and 787, we could've found some middle ground, had more tax cuts, and it would've been a bipartisan solution and all of us would've owned it, the Republicans and Democrats.

But yeah, I don't think it's created jobs at all. We've lost jobs. It's created more government than jobs, and added to the national debt. And it didn't stimulate the economy.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: But the president says he was given no opportunity for dialogue. Republican leaders put out statements opposed to the stimulus before he even announced it.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: That proposal was pretty well known as to what they were doing. I mean, how does doubling the Education Department's budget stimulate jobs? Senator McCain produced an alternative that was $400 billion, that was no small proposal. So the idea that we did not have a proposal of our own that was meaningful, I reject.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: You're one of the few Republicans fighting for comprehensive immigration reform, which most Republicans have called amnesty. Where do you think that stands?

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well I think the idea of border security as a confidence builder is the way to start. Most Americans are very practical and reasonable. They're upset about broken borders and our out-of-control immigration system. They will buy into a comprehensive solution if we can prove to them, and only if we can prove to them, we don't have twenty million more illegal immigrants, ten years, twenty years down the road.

And when it comes to the illegal alien population, if the definition of amnesty is you got to deport twelve million people, or put twelve million people in jail, then we'll never have a comprehensive solution, because that's just not workable, it's not practical.

To me, amnesty would be forgiving people, like Ronald Reagan did, with no consequence, and not repairing the system. Amnesty is what we have today. What I would like to see is the illegal immigrant population come out of the shadows, be biometrically identified, be required to learn English, pay the fines for their crime, and get right with the law. If they want to be a citizen, get in the back of the line, not break into line.

And to my Republican colleagues, I can understand the politics of this is difficult. Big things are hard to do. But I believe in 2008, we lost a lot of ground with the Hispanic community because of the rhetoric and the tone we set on immigration.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: Speaking of politics, I can't help but ask who you think are the most promising, most viable Republicans considering a campaign for president?

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, I think the people who ran last time in our party always have a good start. I think Romney and Huckabee are in a good position. Sarah Palin's got a big following. John Thune's an attractive candidate when you look into Congress.

The good news is that we have got talented candidates. But for our party, we've got to do better with young people, and I think talking about clean air--people under 30 very much are concerned about the environment and being part of the solution. And I think our party's position should be sympathetic to the idea of carbon pollution being harmful. You don't have to believe in climate change or believe that Iowa's going to become beachfront property to want clean air.

But we've got to do more than just count all Obama's failures. We've got to be seen as relevant in the lives of everyday Americans. And I hope our party leaders will take on the environment, immigration, and these big issues.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: Why wouldn't you consider running?

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: I like where I'm at. I understand what it takes to run for president. It's no easy thing and I feel like I'm right where I need to be. I've got a pretty good position in the Senate within my party and with my colleagues as a whole.

And the main thing is using your time productively and pushing center-right politics in a smart, clever way. I like where I'm at, I like the Senate, and I have no desire to run for president.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: Why do you keep having to deal with resolutions back home by local Republican committees condemning whatever you're doing as too liberal?

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, you know, when you look at the authors of these resolutions, these are people who supported my primary opponent [in 2008], people who are more libertarian than they are Republican. There are some Ron Paul supporters, libertarians who don't vote for Republican nominees for president, and they show up with enough numbers to affect politics and I'm not going to give in to that.

I decisively won my primary, and the people who didn't support me have every right to have their say, but they don't speak for the Republican Party. I think I'm where most Republicans in South Carolina are. And for every one that shows up at a county party meeting, I think there are 150 that are loyal Republicans who appreciate my style of politics, center-right politics, trying to find solutions.

BRIAN GOLDSMITH: The Republican lieutenant governor of your state--and a candidate for governor--Andre Bauer, recently compared providing the poor with food assistance to "feeding stray animals." What's your reaction to that?

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, I thought it was really inappropriate and wrong and he's said as much himself. This is just one of those times when a politician over-steps and misspeaks. And the political marketplace will determine what damage has been done. That's why we have elections. People can factor that into their decisions about his candidacy. This is one thing to consider. There are other things to consider, and I think people will do that.