South Carolina senator and former Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham has been a sharp and frequent critic of his party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump, but on Wednesday he changed his tune slightly. While saying that he still cannot support Trump for president, Graham however said that he sees some good ideas in Trump’s proposals and believes the former reality television star could win the White House in November.
But it won’t happen unless he changes the way he presents himself to the public, Graham added, because “crazy loses to crooked.”
Speaking at the 2016 Fiscal Summit sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation* and using Trump’s own nickname for presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Graham said, “Crooked Hillary’s going to beat Crazy Donald. If he’s new and different, I think he could win. New and different is different from being crazy. That’s his challenge.”
Graham was one of the few Republican presidential candidates to attack Trump early and often for his rhetoric that alienates large segments of the voting public and for policy proposals that he (and many others) viewed as ridiculous.
Graham left the race to mocking from Trump earlier this year, with less than one percent support in the electorate.
“He beat me like a drum,” Graham admitted. “He beat us all. He did something that was very amazing really. He beat a pretty talented field handily.” And Graham was willing to admit that it wasn’t just some mass hysteria that drove Republican voters to Trump.
“I think what Trump has going for him is the idea of looking at old problems anew,” he said. “Talk about minimum wage being on the table. Talk about taxing people more in the hedge fund world -- something that most Republicans would be reluctant to talk about. I think the energy he had brought to the table about taking the system and turning it upside down really fits the moment.”
What he said he’s not clear about is whether, Trump, whose slogan is “Make America Great Again,” actually understands what makes America great.
Graham, who has supported immigration reform for years, said that Trump’s divisive rhetoric, particularly about immigrants, has exacerbated the Republican Party’s difficulties attracting support from minorities -- especially Hispanics.
“Bottom line is, the demographic problems we had in 2012, he’s made worse,” he said. Referring to Mitt Romney’s troubles after advocating “self-deportation” in the last election, he said, “If you told me in 2013 that by 2016 we’d be running on forced deportation” he wouldn’t have believed it.
He said it’s impossible to get your message across to a voter who is saying, “I don’t give a crap about your financial plan ... if you’re going to deport my grandmother.”
However, Graham said he believes Trump is “on to something” by raising some issues that other politicians avoid. But, he said, unless he can craft a message most Americans are willing to hear, he won’t be successful in November.
“Can he look the American people in the eye and say, ‘This is a time of choosing. The sacrifices I ask of you are going to be small now, but greater later if we don’t. I’ll never ask of Americans more than they can give. If you’re a low income American we’re not going to ask you to means test your benefits … we’re going to ask every young person to work a little bit longer but we’re going to give you time to adjust. When it comes to the two party system, we’re going to make it better I’m going to lead my party to a better position.’
“I don’t know if he’s capable of doing that or not, but if he could say those things sincerely, I think that would be easy for most Americans to hear,” Graham said.
* Pete Peterson funds The Fiscal Times, an independent news and opinion organization, as a private venture. The Fiscal Times is not associated with The Peter G. Peterson Foundation.