"To every candidate tonight — are you willing to commit that you're going to destroy [ISIS], and you understand that we're going to need ground troops to do it?" Sen. Lindsey Graham asked at Wednesday's second Republican debate. "If you're not ready to do these things, than you're not read to be commander in chief."
This isn't just hyper-hawkishness: It's hyper-hawkishness on steroids, raised to the level of obsession. The overall effect — combined with Graham's promise that "when I'm president, we're going to drink more" — is hilariously unhinged:
Lindsey Graham: I will get absolutelty hammered drunk and then go bomb the f— out of ISIS— Sam Stein (@samsteinhp) September 16, 2015
I love the way Lindsey Graham toggles between homespun common sense and rabid wackadoodle.— Michael Grunwald (@MikeGrunwald) September 16, 2015
Lindsey Graham: I have taped a weapon under every single seat. Rip it off and march with me right now out of this library to fight ISIL.— pourmecoffee (@pourmecoffee) September 16, 2015
Graham is one of the lowest-polling Republicans in the presidential race. He's also, far and away, the most gung-ho foreign policy hawk in the race — and if you understand that he's trying to make all of the other Republicans agree with him on this stuff, and not actually win the presidency, his super-long-shot candidacy actually makes some sense.
Graham is trying to create a new litmus test for Republicans on foreign policy. And he doesn't actually need to win the presidency to do that — he just needs to get the other candidates to agree with him.
Back in April, before Graham got into the race, Rand Paul's non-interventionism seemed like a threat to people like Graham. Now Paul is slipping in the polls, and his campaign is in shambles — he doesn't look like a real threat to remake the GOP in his image. So Graham, instead of fighting an ideological war, is aiming merely to make the already hawkish GOP even more committed to interventionism abroad.
That's why Graham's comment was, implicitly, a challenge to the rest of the Republican field. By saying you don't deserve the presidency unless you're willing to send ground troops to Iraq and Syria, he's trying to define any view to the left of that as un-Republican. And indeed, all three other Republicans in the first Wednesday debate were willing to at least entertain Graham's unbelievably aggressive proposal.
Graham's position has a lot of support among Republican voters and the conservative foreign policy establishment, and the ISIS crisis has pushed people away from Paul's position. Graham's campaign to make the party more aggressive on issues like ISIS, then, has a lot more of a chance of success than Paul's campaign to remake the party wholesale.
So Lindsey Graham won't be president — but he might succeed in making Republicans even more hawkish than they already are. And that's what he really wants.