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PAUL DeMARCO: Lindsey Graham, the weathervane of the new Republican Party

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In September 2009, I attended a town hall meeting in the gymnasium of Francis Marion University featuring Lindsey Graham. It was about six weeks after the confirmation of Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.

Graham was the only Republican senator on the Judiciary Committee to vote for her and one of nine Republicans to vote in favor in the full Senate. When he took questions from the audience, an older man sitting behind me in the bleachers stood and grimly asked, “Why did you vote for that judge,” and here he paused to derisively enunciate each syllable, “SOH-TOH-MAAY-ORR.”

Rather than try to placate his disappointed supporter, Graham forcefully rebutted him. “Elections have consequences,” he shot back. “If you don’t want liberal judges on the court, then elect a Republican president. I don’t agree with Justice Sotomayor’s judicial philosophy, but my job as a senator is to determine whether she is qualified. She is qualified, so I voted for her.”

Of the many conversations I have heard and participated in with my elected representatives, this exchange stands out as one of the best. Graham had a chance to dodge or pander; instead he was truthful and forthright.

Back then Graham was keeping company with another maverick senator, John McCain, and although they are both more conservative than I, I admired their respect for their office and their role as guardians of our democracy.

I was also heartened by Graham’s eviscerations of Donald Trump during his short-lived presidential campaign in 2015. Back when he was speaking his mind he said things like, “You know how you make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to hell,” and “He’s a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.” He also tweeted “I also cannot in good conscience support Donald Trump because I do not believe he is a reliable Republican conservative nor has he displayed the judgment and temperament to serve as Commander in Chief.” That statement strikes me as remarkable for two reasons. First, for its eerie prescience in light of the January 6 attack. Second, for Graham’s complete abandonment of his own good advice: after Trump’s election; he became one of the president’s closest allies.

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Many commentators have rightly criticized Graham for his lack of integrity. But, if you agree with the premise that we get the leaders we deserve, then Graham is not the only one at fault. Elections, as Graham once frequently reminded us, do have consequences. We could have elected Graham as president. A Graham-Clinton match-up in 2016 would have been an interesting and difficult choice for me. But our enthusiasms and our votes buoyed other candidates in the 2016 Republican primary. Graham never polled above 1% and dropped out in December 2015. I saw most of the remaining front-runners as they came through Florence in early 2016 including Kasich, Carson, Rubio, Cruz and Trump. Trump’s crowd almost filled Florence Center, holding as many supporters as all his rivals combined and more.

Graham got the message: he could no longer speak his mind about Trump and remain a senator. The Republican Party had moved far enough from him, especially from his conciliatory and bipartisan approach on immigration, that he risked a successful challenge by a conservative Trump supporter in the 2020 primary if he didn’t move with the party.

If you are a Democrat, you should take this as a lesson. In 2016, Democrats flirted with an extremely progressive candidate in Bernie Sanders, a man who described himself as a democratic socialist. The farther to the edge your standard bearers are, the harder it is for idiosyncratic politicians like Graham to remain true to themselves.

Do we want our parties to be cults of personality in which the thing that trumps (ironic that that’s the right word here) all is one’s allegiance to the party leader? How have we come to the place that acquiescing to Trump’s lie that he won the 2020 election is the current Republican litmus test?

The wholesale transformation of the Republican Party is summed up in Graham’s suppression of his better instincts by voting against the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson. It’s worth noting that just last year, Graham voted to confirm Jackson as a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C., Circuit. That was an under-the-radar vote that he knew few of his base would notice. But with the voters watching, he renounced the principle that had guided him for over two decades and voted against her.

If you are a Republican, understand how I offer this assessment. My hope is for both parties to be strong. My desire is that Republicans will right the ship and recognize their mistake in supporting a president who is actively threatening the fabric of our democracy (which, I fear, is more delicate than I learned in school).

Our country is more secure and more likely to thrive when the two parties allow representatives to vote their consciences. Demanding ideological purity creates parties for which compromise is impossible and intransigence is perversely celebrated. Since absolute victory is rare in policy debates, stymieing the opposition has become the accepted substitute for legislating. Democrats are not immune. Both parties have succumbed to such a rigid dichotomy on the issue of abortion that pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans, once fairly common in Congress, are virtually extinct.

We cannot be party robots. Our future lies with men and women like Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney who put country over party. The Graham of old demonstrated similar laudable conviction. His recent choice to elevate his party over country has indelibly stained his legacy.

Paul DeMarco is a physician who resides in Marion, SC. Reach him at pvdemarco@bellsouth.net

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