Before suspending his campaign in December, Lindsey Graham was a source of relief this presidential election cycle.
The South Carolina senator challenged the environmental orthodoxy of his GOP colleagues, affirming that climate change is real, man-made, and something that needs to be addressed. He also took on the heated rhetoric of front-runner Donald Trump, calling him a race bating, xenophobic religious bigot in response to his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country.
Graham brought a modicum of level-headedness to the GOP presidential race. But his recent endorsement of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is a head-scratcher, a decision that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense politically.
In Friday’s announcement, Graham — perhaps the GOP’s most outspoken national security hawk other than Sen. John McCain — cited Bush’s commitment to the U.S. military as the reason for his endorsement.
He also addressed Bush’s political protégé, Florida Senator Marco Rubio. While Graham calls him “one of the most gifted people” he’s ever met, he doesn’t believe that at 44, Rubio is ready to be president, leading him to endorse Bush instead.
Concerns about age and experience aside, Graham made a mistake in choosing Bush over Rubio.
If the decision to endorse Bush was simply a matter of his national security acumen, Graham had viable options in Bush, Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Chris Christie. The two candidates from Florida, however, have spoken the most authoritatively on the issue, each towing the same hawkish line as Graham.
Considering the political trajectory of the 2016 nomination race, however, Rubio would have made more sense as an endorsement.
Though he fared decently in Thursday’s FOX Business GOP debate, the consensus is growing that Bush can’t win. He’s consistently failed to register well in the polls.
The Real Clear Politics polling averages have Bush at fifth nationally, fifth in Iowa, and sixth in New Hampshire. Bush has not become the alternative to Trump and Cruz that the GOP establishment was hoping for.
Rubio, then, is the betting man’s establishment pick. He polls higher in the early states than any candidate not named Trump or Cruz. His foreign policy vision is also more in line with that of Graham’s.
In South Carolina’s upcoming primary, an endorsement from Graham — who’s a lot more popular in his home state than his conservative critics would have you believe — would be very helpful in building momentum for the one candidate capable of besting Trump and Cruz for the nomination.
Not to mention how Rubio does in a general election against Hillary Clinton.
With Bush’s downfall, any high-profile endorsement not given to Rubio makes a nomination of Trump or Cruz more likely, a result not only devastating for the GOP’s electoral chances this November, but for the party’s brand itself.
Endorsements matter, particularly in an election year where the current GOP front-runners are a bigoted demagogue and a far-right ideologue. Graham, who has consistently sought to build bridges and make the GOP more palatable, realizes the danger Trump and Cruz pose for the Republican Party if they win the nomination.
This is why his endorsement of Bush doesn’t make any sense. Not only has Graham warned against nominating Trump or Cruz — he’s also directly attacked each throughout the presidential season.
In addition to his rebuke of Trump’s Muslim ban, Graham notoriously told CNN that the way to “make America great again” was to “tell Donald Trump to go to hell.”
He’s extremely critical of Cruz as well, calling him an “opportunist” and a “libertarian when it is hot.” He’s also slammed him for opposing more action against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
This all combines for a very curious decision to endorse Bush. Though he may like the former Florida governor, Graham is an intelligent political operator, and he has to realize that Bush’s chances of winning the nomination dwindle by the day.
Though he might have some reservations about Rubio’s experience, the danger of Trump or Cruz winning the nomination is more pronounced. In regard to either’s chance at winning a general election, Graham was rather blunt, stating that Clinton “would clean their clock.”
All in all, Friday’s endorsement was not the most politically expedient move by Lindsey Graham. With Bush’s fortunes unlikely to change course, it’s unclear how much of an effect it will end up having, particularly if the Florida governor drops out of the race soon.
At some point in this race, Rubio will still be in the running, seeking to edge out Trump and Cruz, with Bush on the sidelines. Perhaps at that point, Graham can save face and correct his initial mistake of endorsing Bush by throwing his support behind Rubio.
In the meantime, however, we’re left asking “really Lindsey?” Marco Rubio certainly is.