Lindsey Graham Opens Up About Trump, Sanders and How the GOP Can Win Young Voters


Of all the presidential candidates, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina might be the only one who has never sent an email. But don't expect him to start should he become president.

"Here's what I would suggest," Graham said over lunch on Tuesday. "The next president shouldn't send any email, because it's so easily compromised. I'm not joking. Government officials should really watch the way they communicate. No joke."

If Graham is going to win the White House, it will not be as a result of his Internet-savvy. But the Republican presidential hopeful believes he's the only candidate with a pragmatic vision to govern the country. Despite well-received performances in the first two "undercard" Republican debates, Graham is languishing in the polls. He remains convinced that his conservative-yet-reasonable brand of politics is needed to save the Republican Party.

Graham and I sat down at an upscale Times Square hotel for a wide-ranging conversation on his candidacy and the future of the GOP with young voters. Times Square, he admitted, was one of his favorite places in the world; I told him us millennials prefer Brooklyn.

We covered a range of issues — everything from Black Lives Matter to Citizens United. Graham often breaks from party orthodoxy, proclaiming unequivocally, for example, the science behind climate change is no longer debatable.

The following has been condensed and edited for clarity:

Mic: I was in Iowa and in New Hampshire two weeks ago on the trail. I think one of the things young people say universally is that this election already feels like a nightmare.

LG: Imagine being in it.

From the outside, it feels like things have never been so divisive and polarizing. From your vantage point, how bad is the state of affairs within the GOP?

LG: We think everything is worse and it's never happened before until you start looking at history and nobody's engaged in a duel yet. You go back and look at presidential elections, and this is tame compared to some.

But the number of candidates trying to crowd into about three lanes — have you ever driven in Italy?


LG: You know what it's like going around the Arc de Triomphe [in Paris]? That's what it's like. Trying to get in the roundabout and get off of it. Because there's about three lanes for 16 cars. So to me it's like French driving.

What does [House] Speaker Boehner's resignation mean for the future of your brand of Republican politics?

LG: I'm saying I thought John Boehner did a good job, because I think he did.

The biggest fear most members of Congress have is a primary. Most members of Congress are not going to get beat in a general election. So you have people who can almost say anything from the left to the right and still keep their seats, and it drives the debate into a ditch.

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That's where we're at in the House [of Representatives], I think. You've got about 30 people in the House who live in districts where they can literally say anything, take an approach to an issue that everyone agrees with but tactically is not possible and start blaming people in the party for not achieving a common goal.

You see the Elizabeth Warren phenomenon. I see it beginning to take hold a little bit in the Democratic Party.

To what extent are you actively thinking about millennial voters and 20-somethings?

LG: Well, it's the future; it's like I'm in a business.

But you know the numbers as well as I do. Sometimes they vote, most of the times they don't vote. Is it a priority for you?

LG: Yeah, it is. Demographics are a priority for me. I'm a demographics guy.

If you've got a business, you've got to look at where the market is today and where will it be tomorrow. So, to your audience the one thing they need to look at is the demographic shift in America. We live a lot longer, and there are fewer workers.

If the next president doesn't address that, then your generation are the biggest losers because these systems have a tsunami of retirees. The money it takes to run Medicare and Social Security plus interest on the debt consumes the entire tax revenue stream by 2040, by the time y'all guys are deep into your work life and raising your own kids and they're getting ready to go to college.

If we don't do something today, it becomes a complete disaster down the road.

Why do you think people are so cynical, people who are my age?

LG: Because nothing works. You know, the political system is pretty well-polarized.

"Here's my word of caution for your generation: Don't let America get too vanilla. Don't dumb down democracy."

More so than ever?

LG: Yes. Unlimited money from unknown donors allows a few people a really big say about the debate process, about what you talk about and how you talk about it. Imagine doing the Constitution today. Go back in time: satellite trucks around Philadelphia [Independence] Hall, Ben Franklin comes outside, Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity, I mean...

Say more about how more money in politics has influenced things.

LG: I think it's a formula for disaster. By the end of the election cycle in New Hampshire and Iowa, it will be about who sucks the least. It's not going to be about who's the great visionary leader. These super PACs can do a lot of damage.

As the cost of campaigns and the necessity for a billionaire backer goes up, over time it's inevitable that the policy end is affected, right? If you don't have a viable super PAC connected to your candidacy, you can't go very far.

But what Bernie [Sanders] is selling is sort of victimization. What Bernie's saying is the billionaires got it all rigged: too much money, too many special interests. Rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. Elect me and I'll change it all.

What's Donald Trump selling? These foreigners, these illegal immigrants are coming here, taking your jobs, raping your wife, countries are stealing our jobs. Elect me and I'll stop it.

So you see a similarity in approach?

LG: Victimization. We're the victim of the foreigner or the victim of a fat cat. There's a certain appeal there, but I think you eventually hit a wall with that. Your generation is more optimistic than pessimistic. How far can you go as a candidate when your message is that you're getting screwed by someone else?

There was a lot of talk after the last election about the Republican Party rebranding to reach young voters. How do you think that effort is going?

LG: I think the first thing is don't worry about selling a label, sell an attitude.

Rather than trying to make you believe you should be a Republican, let me possess an attitude that would attract you to what I'm trying to do. An attitude of: It's OK to try; it's OK to fail. Individual responsibility is a good thing because it's the ultimate act of freedom. Freedom to fail and try again is the hallmark of society, so sell the attitude that we're not going to let people die on the street. We're going to have safety nets, but we're also going to allow a certain amount of risk.

The other attitude is that we're literally all in this together. We're not going to be judgmental. We'll stand for our values, but we'll try to find common ground where we can.

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How does that play out with social issues?

LG: The worst thing I can say to anybody is, "If you disagree with me, you're some kind of inferior person." But having a spirited debate about when life begins and when it ends — that's consistent with just a free society.

Here's my word of caution for your generation: Don't let America get too vanilla. Don't dumb down democracy. Don't be afraid to disagree. I think there's almost an aversion to talk about social issues. It's OK to talk about them. The fact that you disagree on one thing doesn't mean that you can't work with them on another.

You've spoken about race more than almost any other Republican. Why do you think they haven't?

LG: Because it's an uncomfortable topic.

You look around, we're not a very diverse party. I grew up in a very diverse state. Thirty percent of my state is African-American, but a lot of the Republican districts have minority populations in the single digits.

You generally feel comfortable talking about things you're comfortable with and that you know.

I've never been stopped because of the way I look. I've never been pulled over and beaten and asked, "Why are you here?" So I can imagine how that would feel. When [former U.S. Attorney General] Eric Holder told me how many times he was stopped for being black in the wrong place, that's an experience I haven't had that I need to be more sensitive to. It doesn't mean every cop that stops a young black man is racist, but it does mean the young black man has some experience I don't.

What have you thought of the tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement?

LG: Very polarizing now. Creating a debate is a good thing. What's the goal? To get results. I don't know that it's positioning itself to get results more than it is just one end of the spectrum versus another.

But [Sen.] Tim Scott has body camera legislation. If you had asked me if Tim Scott would have done that — it was a direct response to this movement.

Talk about what the next few weeks look like for you.

LG: The next few weeks are about raising money to stay viable, driving the debate on national security and trying to get on the stage. If I'm on the stage, we're going to be talking about an immigration fix that's doable.

There's a level of demagoguery around the Republican primary debate right now that I think is unhealthy, and one of the things I want to do is push back.

I'm giving voice to the Republican or the independent who's looking for a problem solver. I'm saying climate change is real. I'm not a scientist, but when 90% of the people who are climatologists tell you it's real, why should I tell them they don't know what they're talking about? The solution is what I would argue about, not the science.

People of your generation are the most environmentally sensitive group of Americans in history. That's a good thing. It's one of the purposes of this campaign is to give voice to younger people who are conservative, but do believe that climate change is real.