About midway through Thursday’s early Fox News GOP debate for second-tier 2016 Republican primary candidates, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina offered the fiercest attack of the night on Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
While he didn’t actually answer the question he was being asked—which was how Americans could become less reliant on government assistance—Graham showed an extraordinary understanding of what the 2016 election is actually about: Whether or not a Republican will undo Barack Obama’s agenda of his past two presidential terms, or whether a Democrat (likely Hillary) will keep that status quo in place.
“To all the Americans who want a better life, don’t vote for Hillary Clinton,” Graham said. “She’s not going to repeal Obamacare and replace it, I will. She’s not going to build the Keystone pipeline, I will. She’s not going to change Dodd-Frank, I will.”
The tone of Graham’s remarks was odd, making it sound like he was already in a one-on-one contest with Clinton, when he is actually near the very bottom of the crowded Republican field. But the actual substance for what he was saying describes incredibly well what is at stake in the 2016 election. Because the size of the current GOP House majority is so large, it is unlikely that Clinton would be able to take back the Congress even if she (or another Democrat) were to win the presidency.
That means that any agenda Clinton wanted to enact would likely face the same firewall of opposition in Congress that Obama’s agenda has faced since the Republicans took back control of the House in 2010. So what’s really being fought over is whether or not a Republican president, House, and Senate undo Obama’s domestic and foreign policy achievements, or a Democratic president preserves them.
“Until you change the policies of Barack Obama, we’re never going to grow this economy. Until you change the policies of Barack Obama, we’re never going to be safe,” Graham continued. “She represents a third term of a failed presidency.”
It wasn’t just domestic policy changes, like repealing the Affordable Care Act or pushing through the Keystone XL pipeline over the objections of environmentalists that Graham promised to change. In terms of American security, Graham is one of the most vocal opponents of Obama’s Iran deal, and he emphasized that America’s foreign policy would be a lot different under a Republican president. Responding to an earlier question in the debate about whether or not former New York Gov. George Pataki would “put a mosque under surveillance,” Graham was adamant that, yes, he would if need be. He also seemed to say that he would be willing to send American troops into combat “to protect us here,” while Clinton wouldn’t.
“If I have to send more American troops to protect us here, I will do it,” Graham said. “She will not.”
It wasn’t clear where Graham wanted to send troops, but he was one of the most bellicose voices at a recent hearing about the Iran deal, berating Defense Secretary Ashton Carter with repeated questions about “who wins the war between us and Iran” and declaring “We win!”
Obama has said that the choice in his Iran deal is one between peace and war, and it is widely opposed in the Republican field, including by Graham.
Which is part of the problem for Graham with his attack on Clinton. Sure, he would do all the things that he described, and Clinton would not. But so would every single other GOP candidate. He offered no distinguishing feature between himself and the entire rest of the field, the vast majority of which he trails.
Perhaps the only way that he stood out is that he showed himself willing and ready to link Bill Clinton’s 1990s prevarication about sex scandals to Hillary Clinton being less than 100 percent forthright about the personal email account she used while serving as secretary of state.
“I’m fluent in Clinton-speak, I’ve been dealing with this crowd for 20 years. You know when Bill Clinton says, ‘it depends on what the meaning of is is’ that means is is whatever Bill wants it to mean,” he said. “When Hillary Clinton tells you ‘I’ve given you all the emails you need,’ that means she hasn’t.”
Update, August 6, 2015, 8:10 p.m.: A spokesperson from the pro-Clinton rapid response group Correct the Record went after Graham following the debate.
"If Lindsey Graham wants to resort to desperate, junior league attacks against Hillary Clinton, maybe he really does belong on the junior league debate stage,” Mary Jennings, the deputy communications director for Correct the Record, wrote in an email to Slate. “Baseless attacks aren't going to get him any traction in the polls or differentiate him from any of the other bottom-tier hopefuls."
The group was founded by Clinton family antagonist-turned ally David Brock and set up to offer instant response to attacks on Clinton. The group is different from a normal Super Pac in that it is allowed to co-ordinate with Clinton’s campaign because of an exemption in the relevant campaign finance law. In May, the Washington Post wrote of Correct the Record, “Hillary Clinton’s campaign plans to work in tight conjunction with an independent rapid-response group financed by unlimited donations, another novel form of political outsourcing that has emerged as a dominant practice in the 2016 presidential race.”