SAN DIEGO – Lindsey Graham just did something that – in the world of politics – simply isn’t done.
The Republican senator from South Carolina, and 2016 presidential hopeful, performed a public service recently when he reminded us – at a town hall in Sioux City, Iowa – that running for president is about more than just winning a popularity contest. Often times, authentic leadership – especially on tough and controversial issues – requires saying and doing things that are unpopular.
Like when someone stands up at a campaign event and suggests that the best way to fight the war on terror and keep America safe against the Islamic State is to outlaw Islam.
How did Graham respond? I’ll tell you in a minute.
But first, here’s some context to help explain why what happened next is so incredibly rare in American politics.
Being an effective leader ought to be about telling voters the cold truth, instead of longing for a warm embrace. Running for office has become too much about striving to be liked.
What if people are not overjoyed with someone seeking elective office, but they still respect that person? Shouldn’t that count for something? After all, they’re electing a leader. Not choosing a BFF.
Besides, haven’t voters figured out that most politicians will say just about anything to be liked? You would think that, after decades of being misled, manipulated, disappointed and betrayed, we would know better.
After a quarter-century of covering politicians at every level of government, I’ve concluded that most of them excel in five areas: not telling the truth, putting their interests before those of voters, talking a lot but saying nothing, hiding their true feelings about one another and, lastly, telling voters what they want to hear whether or not the candidate actually believes it.
It’s best not to put too much stock into what candidates say they believe. After all, that will often change with the wind.
In 1992, many gays and lesbians voted for, and contributed money to, Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign because he assured them that they were part of his vision for America. But after taking office, Clinton broke his promise to end the ban on openly gay service members in the military and signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed states to disregard same-sex marriages.
In 2008, Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama because he promised to make immigration reform a top priority. He didn’t do that, opting instead to deport more than 2 million illegal immigrants – most of them Latino.
And in 2010, conservatives voted in enough Republicans to give the GOP control of the House after many of those candidates promised to repeal Obamacare. Once elected, most of them were reluctant to do anything.
I had just about given up on finding someone who, when running for president, would tell the truth even if voters didn’t want to hear it, push back against constituents who were trying to rope him into taking wild positions, and flat-out tell people not to vote for him rather than pander to crazies. That’s the great Catch-22 of politics: You can’t be someone who deserves to be elected unless you’re willing to stand your ground in ways that might cost you votes.
That’s what Graham did in Sioux City. When the audience member suggested that we make a crime out of being Muslim, the Republican cut him off.
“You know what, I’m not your candidate,” he said. “I don’t want you to vote for me. I couldn’t disagree with you more.”
According to The Des Moines Register, Graham insisted that the best strategy for dealing with the Islamic State is to beef up the U.S. military and send more ground troops to Iraq. Not outlaw Islam.
“The bottom line is I’m not trying to please him,” Graham told a reporter after the event. “I’m not putting up with that. He’s got a right to say whatever he wants to say, but I have an obligation to the Republican Party, to the people of Iowa and the country as a whole to be firm on this. I’m not buying into that construct. That’s not the America that I want to lead.”
According to the newspaper, the man who asked the question left the event quickly. He probably went off to shop for another Republican presidential candidate who would gladly agree with him, and tell him what he wants to hear.
The really sad part is that he might just find one.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.