clock menu more-arrow no yes

Lindsey Graham is taking credit for making the GOP hawkish again. He's wrong.

Lindsey Graham.
Lindsey Graham.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Monday morning, Sen. Lindsey Graham suspended his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Despite polling at around 1 percent for the entire race, and never participating in a main-stage debate, Graham declared victory.

"I got into this race to put forward a plan to win a war we cannot afford to lose, and to turn back the tide of isolationism that was rising in our party," he said in a video announcing his withdrawal from the race. "I believe we’ve made enormous progress on this effort."

He had been running a campaign to push the Republican field in a more hawkish direction on foreign policy; the GOP has, in fact, gotten more hawkish as the campaign has gone on. But if it seems implausible that a candidate who was polling at 1 percent had such a profound impact on the race, that's because it is. The hawkish shift in the GOP field is the result of actual events in the world: things like the rise of ISIS and the Paris attacks.

The rise in GOP hawkishness began before Graham

ISIS videos

It had a lot to do with these guys.

Before June 2014, non-interventionism was quite popular in the Republican Party. In November 2013, only 18 percent of Republicans told Pew the US was doing "too little" to "solve world problems," while 51 percent said it was doing "too much."

This was understandably terrifying for Republicans like Graham. Sen. Rand Paul was, at the time, a rising star; GOP voters getting behind his non-interventionist foreign policy vision was the biggest threat to the hawkish consensus in the GOP since 9/11. Under those conditions, a Graham campaign made a certain kind of sense: He would be a counterweight to Paul and could remind Republicans why they were attracted to hawkishness in the first place.

But in June 2014, ISIS marched across northern Iraq — and everything changed. The world was facing a scary new terrorist threat, which many formerly isolationist-inclined Republicans thought seemed to necessitate a more aggressive foreign policy. By August 2014, 46 percent of Republicans were saying America was doing "too little" to solve world problems in Pew's poll — a plurality. In February 2015, 86 percent of Republicans said that ISIS was a major threat to the US in a CBS poll; 72 percent supported using US ground troops against the group.

By the time Graham entered the race in June 2015, the threat from Rand Paul–style non-interventionism had receded dramatically. Paul's poll numbers were already in the toilet; according to FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten, "Party actors in both Iowa and New Hampshire believe Paul is hurting himself with his positions on [foreign affairs]." Enten also looked at the rest of the non-Paul candidates' policy positions and found the candidates already agreed with Graham on the aggressive use of force abroad.

In other words, Graham entered the race in order to push foreign policy views that everyone else, voters and candidates, already agreed with. The rise of ISIS, not Lindsey Graham, made the GOP more hawkish.

Graham couldn't budge the remaining foreign policy divides in the field

Donald Trump yelling

(Melina Mara/the Washington Post/Getty Images)

All that said, real ideological divides remain in the Republican field. During Tuesday's foreign policy debate, Republicans split over whether the US should seek to topple Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Marco Rubio championed the idea that Assad was an impediment to defeating ISIS; Ted Cruz and Donald Trump argued that the alternative to Assad was an ISIS-controlled Syria. This was a stand-in for a broader debate about whether the US should, generally speaking, seek to spread democracy or work with dictators against terrorists.

Graham actually has something to contribute in this area: He's been one of the most consistent voices in the GOP against cozying up to dictators. But Graham couldn't say anything, because he wasn't in the main-stage debate. Throughout the race, Graham's poll numbers were too dismal to ever come close to participating in that main conversation.

The truth is that Graham, despite being a fairly well-known senator, has nothing like the platform of the main antagonists in this debate. Here's a comparison of Google searches since June for Graham versus some of the leading candidates. Graham actually does fairly well for a marginal candidate, but he's still far below the people who are actually shaping the Republican conversation:

(Google Trends)

When you replace Ben Carson with Donald Trump, things look even more dismal for Graham (and, really, everyone):

(Google Trends)

In short, the foreign policy conversation in the Republican nomination is being determined by people with much better poll numbers and much bigger megaphones than Graham. The fact that he's withdrawing from the race just as a major foreign policy debate is breaking out between the frontrunners is a testament to Graham's fundamental irrelevance in the presidential primary.