Hey, Democrats: Awful Lindsey Graham is your friend
His cynicism is a feature, not a flaw
Listen, I get it: Among all the displays of Republican cynicism in the Trump era, Sen. Lindsey Graham's might rank the highest. From the maverick McCain sidekick who supported comprehensive immigration reform and legislation to mitigate climate change, to vigorous Trump critic, to resigned Trump supporter, to enthusiastic Trump enabler, golf partner, and pro-Brett Kavanaugh carnival-barker — it actually got old to wonder whether the outgoing president had compromising information on the South Carolina senator.
You know what's coming next: Graham is going to pretend like Trump never happened, pull his maverick wardrobe out of storage, and make noises about the need for renewed bipartisan comity and grand bargains on debt reduction.
The professional left can't wait to pounce. Not just on the Lindsey Grahams in Congress, but on the entire firmament of institutional support for Donald Trump, from the Rupert Murdoch media empire to the Federalist Society to every elected Republican who turned a blind eye to Trump's corruption and incompetence.
There is at least one person who likely, and wisely, will not pounce — President-elect Joe Biden. This, despite Biden's "personal disappointment" in Graham for not immediately recognizing his election victory. Whether or not Biden continues to hold a personal grudge — and who could blame him? — he can't afford to hold a political one.
Biden's strategy throughout 2020 — the Democratic primary, the long hot summer of protest, rioting, looting, and the unprecedented tumult of the transition — has been an extensive exercise in strategic restraint. Call it temperamental rope-a-dope. He knew Trump would not resist the self-defeating urge to make the presidential race about himself. So he sat back and let him. And not for one moment did Biden seem concerned about Trump's efforts to overturn the result. The coolest cucumber in Wilmington, Delaware.
At every turn, Biden's leverage has increased. First it was the majority of Democratic primary voters who, fearing an almost-certain defeat of Bernie Sanders, coalesced behind the candidate who had led Trump in literally every single poll. The eventual failure of progressive-left candidates in contested House districts has left virtually no doubt that Biden was right to run up the middle in the general election. Now, thanks in no small part to Trump's outlandish and perhaps criminal behavior in the weeks since Nov. 3, the Senate has fallen into Democrats' lap.
And that's where Lindsey Graham comes in.
With a 50-50 split in the chamber, in which the vice president can break a partisan deadlock, the Biden administration will have the slimmest of possible margins to confirm appointees and judges and pass meaningful legislation. Moderate senators in both parties will have significant sway.
You can bet that Lindsey Graham will want to be one of those senators.
Democrats should let him. Indeed, they should encourage him (privately, of course).
I have long believed that what happens and what is said in front of the curtain of American politics is more important than what happens behind it. There actually are very few mysteries. As fun as it may be to speculate about Graham's private life, he has himself plausibly explained why he behaves the way he does: He wants to be relevant. He wants to be a player. He is a 65-year-old, unmarried, childless man for whom politics is everything.
Call him shallow, malleable, or soulless if you must. But realize that those same qualities can be an asset to the Biden administration. There is a decent chance that Graham will become the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, which will be chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders. Graham and Sanders are quickly going to play a key role in the all-important "reconciliation" bill that's not subject to the Senate filibuster rule requiring a supermajority of 60 votes.
Whether Democrats like it or not, Graham is going to be a "player."
That's why it's critical that Graham not be shot down if, as I suspect, he signals that he is open to cooperation.
Since the shocking and sordid events in the Capitol of last week, Graham has said that "Enough is enough" and that it's "time to heal and move on." In the immediate term, Graham is trying to save Trump, one last time, from a second House impeachment. But it's imperative for Democrats to explore if he means more by healing and moving on.
As repellent as you might find Graham's ability to shed one persona and adopt another, consider how useful it would be to Biden if Graham switched back to his "old self" — the guy who championed the painful but necessary solution to the shambles that is U.S. immigration law, who came closer than you think to pushing cap-and-trade across the finish line during the Obama administration. Looking ahead, Democrats need to view Graham's cynicism and self-interest as a feature, not a flaw. If any long-term good is going to result from the Biden presidency, Sen. Lindsey Graham is going to be part of it.
To make sure that happens, Democrats need to be as transactional as he is.
It's not going to be pleasant.
But I'm here to tell you that it's absolutely necessary.