Ann McFeatters - Lindsey Graham's hard-right turn


We used to think if this were ancient Rome, Lindsey Graham, the senior Republican senator from South Carolina, would be on the side of the reformers.

We thought he'd be the senator counseling wisdom, shaming colleagues for corruption and working through compromise for better government.

We're no longer sure about that.

Graham has become a raging firebrand, a rigid conservative with seemingly little compassion, who appears to have no long-range view of the future.

The Graham of today's Senate got in a shouting match with the police chief of Milwaukee, who had come to Capitol Hill begging for help on behalf of law enforcement to get guns away from criminals. Graham became so rude in a hearing on gun control that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., had to plead for civility.

Graham's point? Even after children were massacred by an assault weapon in their elementary school in Connecticut, the country does not need more laws requiring background checks to buy guns. The country doesn't need a ban on civilian ownership of military-style assault weapons. The country doesn't need a ban on high-capacity magazines.

Here is what Graham said: "I own an AR-15. And you may not understand why I want to own an AR-15, and I may not understand what movies you want to watch." Huh? "But we are talking about trying to solve a problem that has, as its central core, that the people who are committing these crimes should never have any gun or one bullet."

And we used to think Graham, with a background as an Air Force lawyer, was logical.

The Graham of today's Senate excoriated his fellow Republican, former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama's choice to run the Pentagon, for such sins as not wanting to go to war with Iran, for worrying that Israel has too much clout in Congress, for criticizing former President George W. Bush on his handling of the war in Iraq.

Even after it was clear that Hagel would win confirmation, which he did, narrowly, Graham went on record opposing even holding a vote on confirmation. This sent a signal around the globe that leading Republicans don't care if Hagel fails or not.

Conventional wisdom is that the 57-year-old Graham is polishing his conservative credentials because he faces re-election next year and is all but certain to have a serious primary challenge from the right. A number of thoughtful, hard-working Republicans such as the greatly respected Richard Lugar of Indiana have been pushed out of office by knee-jerk Tea Partiers who think "compromise" is a dirty word.

Graham is also part of a bipartisan group working for immigration reform through practical legislation to deal with the reality of at least 11 million undocumented workers in the United States while making the border safer and easier for employers to verify the legal status of employees.

He already has been targeted by groups which oppose any path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. A six-figure ad buy against Graham argues: "Who elected Lindsey Graham to demand millions more immigrant workers when so many South Carolinians are jobless?"

Graham wants to win re-election next year and clearly gives more weight to that than criticism from the few remaining moderates who feel betrayed by his hard swing to the right.

Perhaps Graham really believes Obama should not have his choice of people in his Cabinet. (He helped torpedo Susan Rice as secretary of state and argued against John Brennan to run the CIA.) Perhaps in his heart he does believe Americans should own as many assault weapons as possible, along with bullets designed to rip up a human's insides. (Children of Newtown had as many as 11 bullets each in their tiny bodies.) Perhaps he does believe Tea Partiers are correct in despising much of what government does, although he once called them a flash in the pan.

Perhaps, for Graham, the end justifies the means.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.)

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