Graham’s Independence Wins Plaudits From Ex-Foes

Posted March 25, 2005 at 6:15pm

Less than halfway through his first term, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) is quickly cementing his reputation as a party maverick, thanks to his emergence as a leading voice in the effort to reform Social Security.

Graham has been by far the most outspoken Senate Republican on the need for reform, and has drawn public and private rebukes from within his own party for his criticism of President Bush’s rollout strategy, as well as his own willingness to raise taxes in order to fund the retirement system.

Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said that while he “liked” the South Carolina Senator, he “disagreed with [Graham’s] analysis” of the president’s approach.

For his part, Graham believes that “if you are going to save Social Security you have got to put conventional politics aside and you have got to be a risk taker.”

That independent streak has drawn comparisons, favorable and unfavorable, to Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) who developed a national following during his 2000 presidential bid by casting himself as a reform-minded Republican.

“Sen. Graham definitely has some of that McCainiac magic,” said Marshall Wittman, a former aide to the Arizona Senator and now a fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council.

John Weaver, a close adviser to McCain who has received his share of criticism from Republicans, called Graham a “conservative, a reformer and a problem solver.”

“Does that make him a maverick?” asked Weaver. “Unfortunately, given the way Congress operates, it probably does.”

Critics say Graham resembles McCain most closely in his willingness to take up any issue that is attracting attention from the national media regardless of whether he has any specific expertise on it.

“As an institution the Senate does provide people with a lot of independence,” said one source familiar with Republican leadership. “There is a natural built-in mechanism, and yet even so he feels the need to push, push, push.”

Chris Cooper, a Democratic consultant, offered a slightly different take on Graham’s issue agenda.

“He is still a solid Republican vote, but he is cherry-picking one or two high-profile issues [on which] he can blaze his own trail and establish himself as a maverick,” Cooper said.

Cooper added that Graham seems to have studied the political personas of former South Carolina Sens. Strom Thurmond (R) and Fritz Hollings (D) to build his own profile.

“He represents a modern hybrid of a kind of South Carolina populism that has been in the Senate for 50 years,” Cooper said.

Graham allies argue that while Social Security reform may be the most visible platform for his independence from party strictures, it is far from the first time he has crossed swords with leadership.

While in the House, Graham was involved in the failed 1997 coup to topple then Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.); a year later as an impeachment manager in the trial of then-President Bill Clinton, Graham voted against the charge that the president had lied in the Paula Jones deposition, becoming one of few Republicans to do so.

After winning Thurmond’s open seat in 2002, Graham continued to clash with his fellow Republicans; he voted against the GOP-backed prescription drug plan and was an agitator for further investigation into the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.

Graham said he doesn’t “care what people think about my motives.”

“Some people resent the fact that I get a lot of media attention.” he added. “If you want to get media attention as a Republican, talk about raising taxes and people will pay attention to you.”

Regardless of his intentions, Graham’s efforts to reform the retirement system parallel McCain’s successful push to restructure the manner in which political campaigns are funded.

McCain’s battle on campaign finance reform earned him a number of enemies within his own party and friends across the aisle.

Democrats seeking their party’s presidential nod in 2004 each highlighted their ties to and friendship with the Arizona Senator in what became widely known as the “McCain primary.”

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry repeatedly courted McCain to be his vice presidential nominee, an offer McCain insisted was never seriously considered.

Though Graham doesn’t carry the national profile of McCain, he, too, is adored by many Democrats.

Dick Harpootlian, a former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, recently sent Graham a check for $2,000 to show his support. “He has staked out an independent position; we ought to encourage that,” Harpootlian explained.

Alex Sanders, the Democratic nominee for Senate against Graham in 2002, tells a story that he said encapsulates the transformation of his former opponent.

“Somebody told a friend of mine that if he voted for Alex Sanders, South Carolina would have a Senator who supported raising the payroll tax and hung out with Hillary Clinton,” Sanders said. “My friend voted for Alex Sanders and sure enough, that came true.”

Graham, who serves with Clinton on the Armed Services Committee, has co-sponsored several bills with the New York Senator, including one that would expand health care for military reservists.

Sanders added that while he hasn’t spoken to Graham in quite some time, the next time he does he will offer the Senator an apology.

“During the campaign I said he would be a reliable vote for George Bush and I wouldn’t be a reliable vote for anyone,” Sanders said. “Since then he has not been a reliable vote for George Bush.”