Upon learning that Lindsey Graham would be in town this week for a town hall meeting, the host of WTMA’s “The Morning Buzz” Richard Todd put in a call to the senator’s communications director Kevin Bishop in an attempt to get an interview. Bishop gave the usual runaround about Graham being too busy, but added that if they eventually get to do an interview one day, to quote Todd paraphrasing an obviously sarcastic Bishop, they would “love to talk to the Southern Avenger… We could talk about nothing but Ron Paul… Ron Paul, Ron Paul, Ron Paul…”
Todd and I learned three lessons from this phone call. One, that Graham’s staffers are every bit as smarmy as their boss. Two, that Graham will likely never do an interview with either of us. Three, Lindsey really dislikes Ron Paul. And he should.
Try to understand the current political landscape from Graham’s perspective. Just a few short years ago he was a senator who could run up massive debt, expand entitlements, join the Democrats to grow government in a respectable, bipartisan fashion, and generally do anything he liked, all usually with the help of a Republican president. To be sure, sometimes his constituents gave him grief, but they were so bedazzled by Bush and his War on Terror that Graham could get away with pretty much anything. After all, Lindsey hated the “Islamofacists” too.
But now everything’s changed. At precisely the moment Graham was scolding a Tea Party-laden town hall meeting in South Carolina last spring, insisting that “Ron Paul is not the leader of the Republican Party,” the grassroots conservatives who make-up the senator’s core constituency began moving closer to the hard fisted fiscal conservatism of the Texas congressman and further from the limp-wristed Bush Republicanism personified by Graham. Stop spending! Throw the bums out! End the Fed! This is the language of Ron Paul and the Tea Party-and is as foreign to Graham as an interview on my radio station.
If it is fair to describe the Tea Party as a group that knows what it’s against but is still trying to figure out what it’s for, Paul represents the movement’s limited government aspirations in their purest philosophical form. The degree to which the Tea Party matures toward Paul’s strict constitutional conservatism spells disaster for Republicans like Graham precisely because his entire career has built upon carrying out establishment interests, not questioning the establishment or undermining those interests. For example, when he was promoting TARP, Graham went so far as to suggest it might be time to nationalize the banks, something that would be definitively closer to socialism than anything his party regularly complains about Obama. Compare this to the exact opposite direction the Tea Party is going in-ousting incumbent congressman for daring to support TARP and even being supportive of what would have been considered radical just a few years ago, like auditing or ending the Federal Reserve.
As its critics often claim, the Tea Party could very well subside and these folks could go back to being dutiful Republican voters, who just show up and shut up on election day, exactly as they did during the Bush years. Graham, no doubt, would prefer this. Or the Tea Party could become even more radical in its conservatism through the further influence of Paul, his son and possible future senator, Rand, or other leaders, similar in philosophy. No doubt, this would be Graham’s worst nightmare.
To Lindsey’s credit, he’s never changed-the political environment has. The senator’s refusal to be interviewed, by Todd or me in particular, reflects not only the politician’s standard aversion to criticism, but an establishment man’s nakedness in a Tea Party environment hostile to anything and everything establishment. Bringing up or focusing negatively on Ron Paul-as Graham has done on repeated occasions-is a desperate attempt to keep the libertarian hero in the “kook” category, as the senator and his fellow big government Republicans have done successfully for many years. But with the rise of the Tea Party, and so many of Graham’s own constituents crossing the line to now join Paul in the “kook” category, this will continue to be uncomfortable territory for the old Republican guard.
Here’s to hoping I never score an interview with the senator, and that for Lindsey Graham–things keep getting more uncomfortable.