It would be easy to dismiss Lindsey Graham as a sore loser even before the contest has been decided. In the Republican presidential campaign, his support has hovered between the negligible and the nonexistent. “I’m at 1 percent,” Graham quite honestly admitted to the Republican Jewish Coalition last Thursday. “The election is still long away. Help me stay in the race.” But it is precisely because Graham is doing so poorly that he offers some valuable insights on the outcome of a battle within the GOP that began with Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012.
When not begging for a lifeline from the audience, Graham went on the offensive against the three candidates who have the clearest path to winning the nomination: Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. All three, Graham argued, were waging campaigns that threatened to alienate constituencies that the GOP could ill-afford to lose, Hispanics (in the case of Trump) and young women (in the case of Rubio and Cruz). Both were identified by the Republican National Committee as voting blocs that were key to the GOP’s rehabilitation.
Given the fact that the three targets of Graham’s wrath have all been doing well in recent polls, it’s tempting to wave away his speech as mere sour grapes. Yet as a rock-bottom candidate, Graham also has the freedom that comes with not having any real supporters to alienate. His speech was remarkably blunt, and articulated the very real issues around ethnicity and gender that the GOP is facing in national politics.
Graham pitched his speech as a direct response to Cruz, who was the previous speaker. During the question-and-answer period of his speech, Cruz was asked how he, as a pro-lifer, would make his pitch to “staunchly pro-choice voters” who are otherwise conservative. He argued that in order to win the next presidential election, the GOP had to tack to the right, not the center. “In Washington, there are political consultants who tell us over and over and over again that the way you win is you run to the middle,” Cruz said. “Every time we follow that advice we get clobbered. It doesn’t work. And the reason it doesn’t work is very simple. If you compare 2004, the last race we won nationally, to 2008 and 2012, the biggest difference is the millions upon millions of conservative voters who showed up in ‘04 and stayed home in ‘08 and stayed home in bigger numbers in ‘12. And I believe if we are going to win, the central question in this general election is how do you motivate and inspire and bring back to the polls the 54 million evangelical Christians who stayed home in 2012.”
Speaking immediately after Cruz, Graham dropped the prepared talk he had been planning on giving, which focused on ISIS and the Middle East. Instead, Graham said, he wanted to “take issue” with Cruz’s analysis. “Why do we lose?” Graham asked. “How many of you believe that we’re losing elections because we’re not hardass enough on immigration?” There was a smattering of applause, as some in the audience seemed to agree with this premise. “Well, I don’t agree with you,” Graham went on, with a tightly pursed smile. “I believe we’re losing the Hispanic vote because they think we don’t like them.
“I believe that it’s not about turning out evangelical Christians,” he added. “It’s about repairing the damage done by incredibly hateful rhetoric driving a wall between us and the fastest-growing demographic in America, who should be Republicans. I believe Donald Trump is destroying the Republican Party’s chance to win an election that we can’t afford to lose.”
Graham went on to note that Republicans aren’t just turning off Hispanics, but also young women. “How many of you believe we have a problem with young women as Republicans?” Graham asked, before zeroing in on both Cruz and Rubio’s opposition to abortion even in cases of rape.
As a critique of how Republican identity politics are alienating key demographics, Graham’s speech would be hard to top. The only problem is that Graham’s own way of finessing divisive social issues was hardly better than those he criticized. “How do you get a pro-choice person to vote for you?” Graham asked. “Let me tell you what I will do: I am pro-life, you are pro-choice, ISIL is neither.” This bizarre non sequitur was no more a response to the problem than Cruz’s fantasy about 54 million missing evangelical voters.
Graham seemed angry for most of his speech and when he walked away from the podium he stumbled and nearly fell. His flustered behavior seems to mirror the frustrations of sidelined Republicans, like John Kasich and Jeb Bush, who have gotten nowhere with their appeals to voters outside the conservative hard core.
Graham spoke like a prophet crying in the wilderness. Given the fact that Trump has not just dominated the polls, but also set the terms of the Republican political debate, there is no real audience for the message Graham was preaching. With the contest narrowing down to a battle between Trump and Trump-lite figures like Cruz and Rubio, Graham’s arguments that the GOP needs to be more inclusive and reach out to voters it has alienated in earlier elections is an untimely truth—accurate enough as analysis, but with no bearing on who the Republican nominee will be.