Sen. Lindsey Graham: Can a relative progressive win over the GOP?

Senator Lindsey Graham is a fire-breathing hawk on national security issues. But he’s shown a willingness to work with Democrats in bipartisan fashion on issues like climate change and immigration. Is that a winning presidential strategy?

U.S. Republican presidential candidate South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham waves to supporters during a "Roast & Ride" campaign event sponsored by Iowa Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) at the Central Iowa Expo in Boone, Iowa June 6, 2015.

To describe Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina – one of the latest Republican presidential hopefuls – as “progressive,” one must either put quote marks around the term or precede it with “relative.”

Yes, Sen. Graham is as hawkish on national security issues as his close Senate buddy John McCain (R) of Arizona.

Some of his recent quotes: “The world is exploding in terror and violence … The Mideast is on fire, and it is every person for themselves … Major casualty events can be expected throughout the Western world, including the United States.”

“This is not 'Morning in America' or a hope-and-change campaign,” CNN reported when Graham announced last week. “Instead, Graham sees a world where radical Islam is on the march, ‘rogue nations’ like Iran and North Korea are bristling with threats and the security of the homeland can't be guaranteed…. Graham's doom-laden rhetoric is in keeping with his hawkish world view and belief that the Obama administration has presided over a feckless foreign policy.”

He’s also one of the few members of Congress who’s served in the military (active duty, National Guard, and reserves), retiring as an Air Force colonel in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG).

But Graham also is known as a Republican who can work in bipartisan fashion with Democrats, and he’s more inclined than many in his party to vote for a Democratic president’s nominees to Senate-confirmable positions – as he did with US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, whose nomination had languished for more than five months in the Republican-controlled Senate, and with President Obama’s nominees to the US Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

“I'm going to vote for her because I believe this election has consequences. And this president chose someone who is qualified to serve on this court,” Graham said in explaining his Kagan vote. “At the end of the day, it wasn't a hard decision … She would not have been someone I would have chosen, but the person who did choose, President Obama, chose wisely."

Graham has taken heat from tea partiers – who refer to him pejoratively as a “moderate Republican” – for his willingness to work with Democrats on such issues as climate change, taxation, and immigration reform.

Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations in March, he said that climate change “is real” and that “man has contributed to it in a substantial way.”

“I think the Republican Party has to do some soul-searching,” Graham said. “Before we can be bipartisan, we've got to figure out where we are as a party. What is the environmental platform of the Republican Party? I don't know, either.”

When the House of Representatives failed to pass legislation on immigration last year, Graham said: “Shame on us as Republicans. Shame on us as Republicans for having a body that cannot generate a solution to an issue that is national security, it’s cultural and it’s economic.”

“I’m close to the people in the House, but I'm disappointed in my party," Graham said. "Are we still the party of self-deportation? Is it the position of the Republican Party that the 11 million must be driven out?”

Republicans often talk of being the party with a “big tent” – open to any and all.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, Graham made news when he welcomed transgendered Americans into the GOP, specifically the Olympic champion and reality TV celebrity formerly known as Bruce Jenner.

"I’m a pro-life, traditional marriage kind of guy," he said. "But I’m running to be president of the United States. If Caitlyn Jenner wants to be a Republican, she is welcome in my party.”

“If Caitlyn Jenner wants to be safe and have a prosperous economy, vote for me. I’m into addition," Graham said. "I haven’t walked in her shoes. I don’t have all the answers to the mysteries of life. I can only imagine the torment that Bruce Jenner went through. I hope he’s – I hope she has found peace."

When he was asked about Jenner on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, running at or near the front of the pack among GOP presidential hopefuls, would only say “it’s a personal decision.”

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