Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Can Lindsey’s “Grahamstanding” Really Ruffle Rand? It’s important to think back to Ron vs Rudy, SC ‘07

Weeks before yesterday’s formal announcement, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was already spelling out his vision for a potential presidential bid to Politico and WaPo.

How, pundits might wonder, can a senator who’s hardly a household name - despite frequent talking head spots on cable news - and saddled with a record of bipartisanship that’s viewed with suspicion by Republican primary voters, build a campaign that’s competitive?

Lindsey Graham has a plan: make Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and, specifically, his supposedly un-Republican foreign policy, his foil. Playing off Paul, Graham hopes to mark territory as 2016’s most hawkish competitor.

On a debate stage crowded with future also-rans in near uniform agreement over world affairs, Lindsey Graham can’t wait to stand out from the GOP cattle call by pounding Rand in person.

Call it “Grahamstanding:” look for Lindsay to denounce “demagoguery” and “isolationism” in suspiciously demagogic terms (Read: “Those who believe we can disengage from the world at large and stay safe by leading from behind, vote for someone else. I'm not your man.”).  We’re sure to hear the senior Senator from the Palmetto State repeat his smear that Rand Paul’s foreign policy is “to the left of Obama.”

A 538 blogger suggests that “Lindsey Graham May Have Already Won” in his long-shot bid by making sure that his hawkish foreign policy is front and center in the conversation on the road to the nomination, and that Paul will not go unchallenged.

But there’s reason to be skeptical if Graham can take off with this strategy.

First off, the political press might hound Graham out of the race, should he “underperform” (a notion still undefined) in South Carolina’s “third in the nation” presidential primary.

Graham can’t reasonably expect a “Favorite Son” effect to take the Palmetto State effectively off the early date on the primary battleground calendar.

Graham’s relations with South Carolina’s GOP base is strained - he’s been lampooned for peddling “Grahamnesty” on immigration.  In 2014, Graham faced down a host of candidates that the Tea Party make a ruckus over.  Graham far outpaced his runner-up, but he won renomination with an unimpressive 54% of the primary vote. An early poll shows Graham back in the presidential pack in his home state.

And Graham may not even have this lane all to himself.  While former UN Ambassador John Bolton has demurred from a bid waving that banner, he’s endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), who may try to sound like even more of a warmonger than  Graham.  Unlikely at this point, but Rep. Peter King of New York has not yet closed the door on a foreign policy-focused bid.

In assessing if Lindsey Graham can gain traction as the “anti-Rand,” it’s important to think back to how Ron Paul became a phenomenon in 2007.

Back in May 2007, before he took the stage in South Carolina for a Fox News-hosted GOP presidential debate, then-Rep. Ron Paul was recognized by the political press as a famously prodigious fundraiser from his fervent mailing list fanbase, but one who barely registered in national polls.

Former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani walked onstage aware that his relatively liberal stances on social issues could be a liability in this Bible Belt state. But he knew that his reputation as “America’s Mayor” during 9/11 could divert attention from those social stances among the famously flag-waving, military-venerating South Carolina Republicans. So when a moderator asked Ron Paul about 9/11, Giuliani pounced.  “As someone who lived through the attack of 9/11,” “America’s Mayor” butted in, spinning Paul’s remarks as asserting that American “invited” the attack.

It played to the hall, drawing enthusiastic backing from the crowd, just as Giuliani had expected. But spat was the first presidential debate moment to go viral and Ron Paul’s profile boomed via social media, setting the stage for his record-breaking online fundraising “money bombs.”

Just a few primaries into the season, Giuliani was out, but Ron Paul soldiered on, the only candidate other than the nominee to make it to the GOP convention.

That viral debate moment highlights the pitfalls with this strategy. Despite not being shared by most GOP voters, it was his unique perspective that carved his niche in the campaign.  It can be tough to succeed by being the loudest or most impassioned among a crowd that shares your position than voicing a view distinct among all of your rivals.

And Graham’s approach, however sharp his remarks, is much less bombastic than Rudy Giuliani’s and lacks a compelling narrative like becoming “America’s Mayor” on 9/11.  So he may not even be able to out-shout Rubio and the rest.

While his more cautious foreign policy may be generally popular with general electorate, Rand Paul remains outside of the GOP “mainstream” on foreign policy.  But in cautioning more military restraint, Rand Paul is distinct among Republican presidential hopefuls in speaking up for a view shared by a not-insignificant minority of his fellow Republicans.

Instead of forcing him out of the race or discrediting his positions, attacks against Rand Paul could just as easily redound back to his benefit.  And remember, Rand Paul’s cautiousness is shared by many more Republicans than Ron Paul’s isolationism.

With the ghost of Giuliani's 2008 bid haunting the path to the Republican convention, why would Graham get in? To answer, consider that so much has changed in how presidential campaigns unfold since that start of the 2008 presidential campaign, just two cycles ago.

Ron Paul was one of the first to harness social media in 2008, a tool now de rigueur. And, post-Citizens United, the possibility of super pac largess dangles before Graham, hoping that it might be spread his way.

One super pac backed by some of the “Swiftboat Veterans for Truth” strategists from 2004 launched into Rand Paul the very day of his announcement. Vegas mogul Sheldon Adelson’s - whose super pac kept Newt Gingrich hobbling on in 2012 - holds hawkish views that could back Graham. Support like that could keep Graham on the debate stage long after and despite of a potential single-digit home state primary performance.

A pro-Rand super pac has already called Graham into the ring.

In the end, it could be a wash; a symbiotic deal for both candidates.  Graham’s attacks could cement his standing as the GOP’s pre-eminent hawk, and compare to most of his ilk, a thoughtful one at that.

And attacks on Rand Paul that draw attention to his uniquely restrained Republican foreign policy could attract more support among cautious Republicans than his father could have hoped to win.

No comments: