Lindsey Graham on Abortion: Staying Relevant, Challenging McConnell

Sen. Lindsey Graham, Tsafrir Abayov/AP

Lindsey Graham (Trump R-SC) is the Rudy Giuliani of the Senate–someone who will do anything to stay relevant. When John McCain was riding high as “the maverick,” Graham basked in his role as McCain’s wingman and found his own stride especially in warmongering toward Iran. But McCain died from brain cancer in 2018 and wasn’t even in his grave yet when Graham began shifting alliances toward Trump and maneuvering for Ivanka to be invited to McCain’s funeral despite McCain’s antipathy for Trump himself. If anything, Graham had been more contemptuous of Trump than McCain himself, referring to Trump as a “kook,” “crazy” and “unfit for office” during the 2016 Republican primary campaign and famously warning that “If we nominate Trump we will get destroyed … and we will deserve it.” But Graham went on to be one of Trump’s most stalwart Republican allies in the Senate, was almost as dedicated to Trump himself, and went back to placating Trump almost as fast as Kevin McCarthy after the Jan. 6 Insurrection. As Graham told Mark Leibovitch, “This is to try to be relevant.” 

Today, Lindsey Graham introduced a proposal for a national ban on abortion after 15 weeks. As is the case with most conservative abortion discourse, Graham is flamboyantly dishonest to refer to abortions after 15 weeks as “late term abortion.” But after Trump’s 30,000 lies in four years, lying has become more the norm for white conservatives than ever. Then, the question is how does Graham’s proposing such a measure keep him “relevant.” A national ban on abortion is not going to pass in either the Senate or the House. Given the unpopularity of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v Wade, Graham’s proposal is more likely to hurt than help GOP candidates the Senate, House, and Governor’s offices. If the abortion ban seems likely to backfire, how does this increase Graham’s relevance both in the short and long term? Of course, there’s a short-term benefit for Graham in getting him in front of the cameras. But a publicity hound like Graham has hundreds of ways to get in front of a camera. Why propose such an obvious dud?

One idea is Graham’s doing this to identify himself with the anti-abortion fanatics in the GOP base. Perhaps Graham’s trying to set himself up for a presidential run if Trump backs out of a 2024 campaign. What I find most interesting though is that Graham is introducing a culture war theme at a time when Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell wants Republican candidates to focus on inflation. Here’s two tweets from McConnell that went out at about the same time as Graham’s press conference.

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And this is the way Lindsey Graham is trying to stay relevant–by challenging Mitch McConnell’s leadership and not particularly caring if he harms Republican candidates or hurts GOP chances of retaking the Senate. He’s not alone either. Last February, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee went off the reservation when he advocated what amounted to an end to social security, medicare, and medicaid. Like banning abortion, ending social security is a campaign loser for the GOP and Scott was rebuked by McConnell who was emphatic that ending social security was not part of HIS agenda and that he would not bring anti-social security bills to the floor if the Republicans become a Senate Majority once again.

“Let me tell you what will not be a part of our agenda: We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people and sunsets Social Security and Medicare after five years. That will not be part of the Republican Senate majority agenda,” McConnell said.

But Rick Scott has persevered in his challenge to McConnell on social security and he’s been followed in that course of action by MAGA minded GOP senators like Ron Johnson and Lindsey Graham. Rick Scott, et al., are not going to get rid of social security in the near future, but they can and are undermining the leadership of Mitch McConnell in the present. Mitch McConnell and his Senate Leadership Fund have been pursuing a strategy of nominating electable Republicans and focusing on attacking Biden rather than articulating a Senate Republican agenda. But the strategy has been falling apart most importantly because questionable Trump-endorsed GOP candidates like Blake Masters, the execrable J. D. Vance, and Mehmet Oz won Republican primaries but also because of ambitious GOP senators like Rick Scott who would rather go down to defeat than continue to follow Mitch McConnell’s leadership. McConnell has had an iron grip over the Senate GOP caucus since first becoming Senate Republican leader in 2007 and Senators like Rick Scott are willing to risk continuing as a Senate minority rather than follow McConnell’s strategies and continuing to embrace his leadership.

And this is what Lindsey Graham was doing today. By proposing a national ban on abortion, Graham was seeking to regain a sense of relevance by mounting his own version of a challenge to McConnell’s leadership. Although Graham still has some relevance as a Senate supporter of former president Trump and has been interviewed several times about his support for cutting or abandoning social security, he wanted to be “the guy” on at least issue and that issue is abortion. Unlike Mitch McConnell who lives or dies with the success of the Republican Party, Lindsey Graham is very willing for the Senate GOP to keep losing as long as he himself stays relevant.

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