MANCHESTER, N.H.— Tracking Lindsey Graham and John McCain on the campaign trail means hearing the same jokes, anecdotes and threats several times over.
There’s the joke about lawyers, which McCain uses to jab Graham’s 33 years as a military attorney: “What’s the difference between a lawyer and a catfish? One is a scum-sucking bottom dweller…and the other is a fish.”
There’s the one about McCain’s comeback here in 2008, which Graham uses to lighten his own dim presidential prospects in 2016: “What have I learned from being around John all these years? You can be fifth in a four-person race and still win New Hampshire.”
There’s the one when Graham asks, “How many believe ISIS is coming here if we don’t stop ’em over there?” (Most hands go up.)
And then there’s the latest, in which he divides the 2016 election into two parts: “Before Paris, and after Paris.”
At seven stops this past Friday and Saturday, from hard-up town halls to a Vietnamese temple, Defense One shadowed the Republican senators as they performed their apocalyptic slapstick. At a sprawling home on Saturday, McCain asked if I was sick of the routine yet, quoting Ted Kennedy: “If it’s a joke worth telling, it’s worth telling over and over and over and over and over.”
This discordant refrain of waggery and war is the glue of Graham and McCain’s partnership, which has helped shape national-security politics for more than a decade. Now the Arizona senator and his colleague from South Carolina, the “two amigos,” have teamed up for their most quixotic quest yet: making Graham the 2016 Republican nominee.
They’re hoping that the Paris attacks will give Graham the momentum needed to score an upset here in the first presidential primary. He is the only military veteran left in the field, and was the first to offer specifics about how he would defeat the Islamic State. McCain, who convinced him to run, was the 2008 nominee. Between them, they have more than half a century of service in the military and Congress.
Yet Graham was booted off the stage altogether in the last Republican debate, and a Real Clear Politics average of recent New Hampshire polls puts him at 0.8 percent. McCain faces stiff challenges back home in Arizona, and he may well lose his beloved Armed Services Committee gavel in the coming election: 21 other Republican senators are also up for reelection, and two are retiring, to the Democrats’ 10.
READ the full interview, here.
What does it say about the GOP when its top national security leaders can’t get traction outside the Beltway?
“This is the year of an outsider and I’m looked at as an insider,” Graham said, but that was before the recent attacks. “After Paris, experience is gonna matter.”
McCain and Graham relish underdog status, but at stake is a generation of Republican foreign policy leadership. Maybe they endanger their political careers and don’t win the White House — either way, Graham said, “It’s one hell of a good time.” With the next attacks on their way, you gotta live a little.
Before Paris, After Paris
“I am here to translate Sen. Graham’s remarks into English,” McCain joked Friday at a law firm in Manchester. “My friends,” he continued in his customary style, recent events “have shaken the nation.”
A week before, ISIS-affiliated terrorists killed 130 in Paris. Hours before, al-Qaeda-affiliated gunmen killed at least 19 at a Mali hotel.
These “clearly indicate that America needs a leader who is experienced, knowledgeable, and ready to lead immediately,” McCain said. “No on-the-job training, no seminars, no books, no position papers, but a person who has been to Iraq and Afghanistan 35 times.”
“I think people are gonna have another look,” he continued. “I think they should have a look at Lindsey Graham.”
The senators spend their share of time relitigating the Iraq War and who’s to blame for ISIS, but Graham is emphasizing: “What now?” The Republican field is long on tough talk about ISIS (and criticism of President Obama), but short on detail about what they’d do instead. Graham points to his long-held plan. His early call for 20,000 American boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria was too hawkish for many, but voters and rivals “are coming our way,” he said.
“Three years ago, it was me and John against the world. That’s when isolationism was red-hot,” Graham said Saturday while riding back to his Manchester headquarters. (“That’s when we were the old hawks,” McCain put in.) “Ted Cruz was Rand Paul’s biggest buddy,” Graham said of his fellow senators and 2016 competitors. McCain noted, “Rand Paul was on the cover of Time.”
Now, there are two elections, Graham said: “Before Paris and after Paris.” “After Paris, I hope people are looking for somebody with experience in the area of national security. If they look, they will find me.”
The 2016 campaigns scrambled to respond to the attacks, with several refocusing national security addresses and others bringing heated rhetoric to a boil. Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, in separate speeches last week, called for sending more troops to the combat zones, though Bush declined to say how many and Clinton said they shouldn’t be American. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie followed with his own address Tuesday, continuing to invoke 9/11.
Each of these candidates and more are hoping that the attacks suggest the country needs a tested leader rather than the inexperienced Donald Trump and Ben Carson, but the results have been mixed. New Hampshire voters say they’re giving Christie another look, while Cruz, who said the U.S. should keep out Muslims, is enjoying a surge. Carson is slumping amid recent scrutiny, but Trump still appears untouchable.
Meanwhile, a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday and conducted just days after the Paris attacks showed more Americans trust Democratic frontrunner Clinton to handle the threat of terrorism than any of the top Republicans — including Trump, the GOP frontrunner, by a margin of 50 to 42 percent.
Graham predicted his rivals would collapse under the pressure of “having to tell the American people about future Parises.” Clinton, he said, is “running away from Obama, but she’s got [Sen.] Bernie Sanders on her back, so she can’t get very far very fast.”
Graham has gone further than any candidate in calling for more U.S. military force against ISIS, which he wants authorized without limits. But it’s too soon to tell if voters will follow.
According to Graham’s plan, the U.S. would go after ISIS first. American boots would make up 10 percent of the ground force, while the other 90 percent would be from Arab countries, supplemented by Turkey and a smattering of Western forces, including the French, and “what’s left” of U.S.-equipped rebel groups. It would destroy the caliphate in Syria, then turn toward the Bashar Assad regime.
“If the Russians and Iranians” — “Let me finish my thought,” he said to McCain, as they spoke over each other like brothers — “want to fight for the butcher of Damascus, they’ll be fighting the entire Arab world, Turkey and most of the West, and they’ll fold like a cheap suit.”
Graham said the Saudis had promised their army and the Qataris promised to pay for it, but only if the force would also go after Assad, not just ISIS. There’s the catch: it would ultimately require U.S.military action against Assad and those backing him, a scenario the Obama administration has been reticent to contemplate.
So then, who follows Assad? “The people of Syria decide,” Graham said. “How about that novel idea?”
“The McCain-Graham approach to foreign policy is now very much the centerpiece of this election,” Graham said. Asked whether it’s here to stay, he said “Yes,” then, “Well, it’s here for a while, until we get war-weary again.”
Graham seemed most at home at Hudson’s Northside Grille Friday night, visiting booths full of diners and hovering at the bar. He often talks on the trail about growing up in the back of a restaurant. He was the first of his family to go to college, then law school. In June, he retired from the Air Force as a colonel.
McCain, almost 20 years his senior, jokingly calls Graham “my illegitimate son.” “Yes, I’m much smarter,” McCain quips, while Graham retorts, “He’s a hero; I’m not. Yeah, yeah.”
McCain entered the Naval Academy in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both four-star admirals. After being shot down over Hanoi during the Vietnam War, he was imprisoned and tortured for years. When he left the military, he moved to Arizona and ran for office.
Asked about the first time they met, Graham laughs: “During impeachment … it’s a hell of a way to meet somebody.” McCain was impressed by the then-congressman, who helped bring the case against former President Bill Clinton from the House to the Senate, and asked him to join his 2000 presidential campaign.
“I said sure and he said, ‘Why were you so quick?’” Graham recounted. “I said, ‘Nobody’s ever asked me before.’”
In New Hampshire, hundreds of miles away from Washington, voters I spoke to said national security is their biggest concern, particularly in the wake of the Paris attacks. This reflects a grim mood nationally; the Monday Post-ABC poll found that a “record-high” 54 percent of Americans nationwide disapprove of the way Obama’s handling terrorism, and 57 percent disapprove of his handling of ISIS. But the New Hampshire voters aren’t yet sold on Graham.
Linda Locke is usually behind the bar at Northside, but she was off Friday, telling McCain about her youngest son, a B2 bomber crew chief. Another is a military contractor. “I’m an independent,” she told me, then leaned in, “but I usually vote Republican.”
She described herself as frightened. “I just want somebody to get in there that’s really gonna do something about it,” she said, but grimaced at Graham’s plan for boots on the ground. “I don’t want to lose them going over to the other countries.”
“Honestly, I don’t know a lot about him,” she said, but it concerns her that others don’t have military experience, “because they’re talkin’ about something they’ve never dealt with, hands on.”
“Having fun?” McCain interjected. “Her son is a great patriot.”
Locke confessed she didn’t vote for McCain.
Later at a town hall at the American Legion in Hudson, Howard Ray, a retired Army sergeant, questioned Graham about veterans. Ray served 13 years as a tanker, and received the Army Commendation Medal for saving lives during the Fort Hood shooting in 2009. He said the national-security fervor will fade. “It comes and goes – you can go around Fort Hood right now, or here in New Hampshire, and they won’t remember,” he said.
One of the last stops Saturday was the elegant public library in Franklin, one of the state’s poorest towns. The library overlooks an abandoned mill and an island in the river where someone stuck a “Bernie” sign.
McCain got some laughs in his introduction with the one about lawyers and catfish. Then he asked, “Could I be serious?” and rattled off a list of current global security crises. “This isn’t like an earthquake or a hurricane. It’s because of the failed policies by this president who believed if we get out of wars, then the wars end.”
Joel Bruno knows something about that. He served in the Navy from 1957 to 1960, reenlisted from 1964 to 1966, and saw service from Norfolk to the South China Sea. He said boots on the ground will become necessary: “You can drop all the bombs from here to hell, but it’s not gonna make a difference.”
So how will he vote? “I haven’t really made up my mind yet,” he told me. “I like Trump, the things he says. But in a way I’m scared of ’em.”
Graham interrupted, “Thank you, sir, for coming, and God bless you.” Bruno nodded his Navy ball cap.
The (Not Quite) Last Ride of the Two Amigos
“If I ever grow up, I want to be John McCain, but I don’t know if that’ll ever happen,” Graham said in Franklin. He noted that the Arizona senator was spending precious days in New Hampshire instead of stumping for himself in Arizona. “How many people would do that in this business?”
McCain cracked: “Last town hall meeting, he said I had to be ambassador to Russia.”
In the car back to headquarters Saturday night, I asked if this was the last ride of the two amigos, given Graham’s long odds, McCain’s high stakes, and the disconnect between their standing in Washington and the anti-establishment anger outside it.
“I am confident that even if I were out of office and he loses,” McCain began somberly — Graham laughed, saying, “It’s a good question” — “We would still have a role to play.” McCain said he’s doing it “because I really am concerned about the world today and a lack of leadership and my belief that [Graham] is by head and shoulders the most qualified to save this nation.”
“Here’s what I’ve learned about John McCain: He should’ve been dead 20 times,” Graham said. (McCain, mockingly, “Heh, heh, heh.”) “And he’s still standing.”
As for his own viability, Graham said wait and see for the post-Paris impact. “I think we’re already changing the nature of the race,” he said. “And it’s not about the outcome as much as it is about the fight itself. We believe that the fight that we’re fighting has to be fought. That we have to wake America up, get our system to change so Republicans embrace more of a middle-right center lane, rather than a right-ditch lane.”
McCain added, “And as you can tell … we enjoy it! It’s not a chore, it’s not a burden —”
“What’s the reason for living?” Graham exclaimed. “I have never had more fun than I am having right now. Having him up here by my side has been the highlight of my political life. We’ve got a story to tell and we’re gonna tell it, and those who count us out usually wind up making a mistake.”