Lindsey Graham explores presidential run. What on earth is he thinking?

So far there’s been no groundswell of Lindsey-mania or Graham-mentum among the GOP’s uncommitted. But Graham is from an important primary state and may be looking to influence the direction of the Republican Party.

Susan Walsh/AP
Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R) of South Carolina, says he’s set up a committee and a website to raise money for a possible campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.

What on earth is Lindsey Graham thinking?

That’s a question that’s floating around Washington in the wake of Senator Graham’s announcement that he’s actively exploring a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

So far there’s been no groundswell of Lindsey-mania or Graham-mentum among the GOP’s uncommitted. Graham’s pronouncement didn’t scare Mitt Romney out of the race, amused pundit tweets notwithstanding.

National polls of GOP candidates don’t include him. He’s not listed on betting lines of possible nominees, unlike Sarah Palin and even Donald Trump. All indications are he would be a “very underwhelming presidential candidate,” according to the 538 data journalism site.

But look, it’s fairly common for senators with low name recognition in the country at large to launch White House efforts. They’re well-known and powerful within the Beltway and that breeds a kind of political confidence. Who can forget Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah’s 2000 nomination bid? Or former Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, who vied for the White House in 1996? Or former Sen. Birch Bayh (D) of Indiana, who thought about running in 1972, then took the plunge in 1976?

Senator Bayh began with high hopes, but finished third in the Iowa caucuses, behind Jimmy Carter and “uncommitted.” He only lasted a bit more than three months as an official candidate. When he quit, at his press conference he said, “I’m not prepared to crawl under a rock and say the future of Birch Bayh is over.”

But we digress. The point is that Lindsey Graham is following precedent. He knows he’s the darkest of horses, but lighting can strike, to mix a metaphor. Jimmy Carter was unknown before he beat Birch Bayh.

Plus, Graham’s from an important primary state. That’s another reason he might want to run. Right now, South Carolina is scheduled to vote only 18 days after New Hampshire. Graham could contest the primary as a favorite son, corral some delegates, and then throw his support later to whoever promises him (and his state) the most. 

But the biggest thing pushing Graham into the presidential fray might be a desire to influence the direction of the party in regard to foreign policy.

Graham and his friend and mentor Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona are effectively the leaders of the interventionist wing of the Republican Party, according to Vox’s Andrew Prokop. They supported US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. They pushed for the US to leave a larger residual force in Afghanistan, contrary to Obama administration plans. They wanted the US to intervene more forcefully to support moderate rebels in Syria.

Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, on the other hand, wants to pull the GOP in a more non-interventionist direction. He wants less US military action overseas and less US electronic surveillance at home.

That means that if he officially runs for president, Graham may be trolling Rand Paul, according to Vox.

“While there will be no shortage of GOP candidates taking shots at Rand Paul on foreign policy ... it seems that Graham wants to make sure the GOP base will hear his own distinctive voice contradicting Paul every step of the way,” writes Mr. Prokop.

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