South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham had a standout performance in the early CNN Republican debate. Standing on stage with the other three lowest polling candidates may have turned out to be an advantage, as Graham had considerable time to explain his policy views and governing style while also making more personal connections to voters. Whether his strong performance will improve his poll numbers will depend largely on how many voters were watching the ‘second tier’ debate and also on how the later debate unfolds.
Graham had strong policy moments on immigration and foreign policy. On immigration, he took a strong but also compassionate and realistic stance. Graham’s position was a stark contrast with current Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s immigration policy. Trump has pleased low information base voters by throwing out populist red meat short on policy details; his plans include unrealistic but popular proposals like making Mexico pay for a $10 billion wall across the 2,000 mile US-Mexico border or spending $80 billion dollars on rounding up and shipping out undocumented immigrants, only to let most of them back in.
Graham also clashed on immigration with Senator Rick Santorum who wrongly claimed that immigrants take American jobs and depress wages. Graham, who seems to be better versed in the actual economic data, pointed out that immigrants benefit the American economy by keeping the workforce young and growing, which is a vital component to not only economic growth, but also to preserving retirement programs like social security. While the ratio of workers to retirees was once 16:1, it will be only 2:1 within 20 years thanks to the declining birth rates that all developed nations experience. Immigration can help solve that problem. Graham also corrected Santorum when he seemed to imply that Hispanics ‘aren’t Americans.’
On foreign policy, Graham expressed a clear vision informed by his years of military service. The Senator wants a stronger military that will put boots on the ground to defeat the Islamic State. Now, one can certainly disagree with Graham’s interventionist policies, but there is a certain appeal to the idea of a commander in chief who, once we’ve decided to go in, goes in all the way. Part of Barack Obama’s failure is that he intervenes only half-way.
The Senator also had strong arguments on governance philosophy. He pointed out that experience matters when you’re selecting the leader of the free world and that Trump lacks such experience, that winning elections precedes getting things done, that shutting down government isn’t a solution, and that being polite to politicians on the other side is necessary and good when you need to cut a deal.
Finally, Graham made a personal appeal based on his humble roots, often engaging in self-deprecating humor. A strong moment came when Graham laughed off the idea that the son of an owner of a liquor store, a bar, and a pool room was an “elite” in response to a question about voter’s desire for an “outsider.” What Graham implied but didn’t say, is that what voters really want is something different. Donald Trump is different, but not in a good way. Voters should consider looking for a candidate even less common than a billionaire running for office: a good politician. Lindsey Graham made a solid argument that he is an example of this rare beast.