By Greg K. Deal
Shorelines Magazine Editor & Publisher
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) stopped in Savannah Lakes Village on Friday to speak about a variety of national and state issues ahead of the 2014 congressional election season.
Graham, who spent the day visiting several areas in the Blueway and Lakelands regions, met a crowd of constituents at the Red Barn in McCormick’s Hickory Knob State Resort Park. He talked about healthcare, Social Security and Medicaid, recent and recurring foreign affairs – including the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine – the military, education, and he addressed a question on Republican Party infighting.
Graham is expected to face a primary challenge this summer, and, if he’s successful, will square off against the Democratic challenger in November’s general election. If he loses in the primaries, Graham said he will support the party’s nominee. Some in the Tea Party have threatened to mount an attack to unseat the once-highly popular senator, who some on the far right of the GOP call a RINO (Republican in Name Only) because he’s worked across the party aisle with Democrats on some volatile issues that have several times nearly brought the government to a deadlocked standstill. Graham said he’s ready for any challenge.
“I’m not going to hate my opponent,” he said, adding that the party is stronger when it unifies under a broader tent. He said members of the Tea Party, traditional “Reagan Republicans” and Libertarians must come together to take back control of the Senate from Democrats.
He also said the party must do more to reach out to African-American voters, noting that if you go to an African-American church that you will hear the same conservative values the GOP supports preached from the pulpit and discussed among members of the congregation. He said Republicans are only out of touch with the minority communities because of poor party branding (marketing identity) – that they share the same principles and values. In a state that is 33 percent African-American, Graham said education here in the state is critical. He said some schools in South Carolina look “third world,” and that we must bring 21st-century education to all children, not just to those who live in the places with the highest tax bases.
In challenging the often-discussed topic of whether the senior senator is conservative enough, Graham said, “You don’t have to become socially or economically liberal to grow the party.” He said legislators should stand firm behind their core convictions, but also be prepared to work across the aisle to make a real difference in the country. He noted how Republican President Ronald Reagan worked in the 1980s with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill on Social Security reform and other measures. He talked about his own workings with the “Gang of 14” to try to find common ground on judicial nominees, ending filibusters and a threat of the so-called “nuclear option” that would bypass filibusters.
Graham said he, too, wants to see more conservative judges; but he said he doesn’t want to bend laws or congressional rules to make it happen. He said the best way to get more conservative judges and Supreme Court justices is by making sure the party has a president in the White House to make the appointments and a Senate that will approve them.
When there are differences, Graham said, “Republicans and Democrats must get in a room and figure it out.”
“I’m willing to be that Republican,” Graham said, making his pitch for re-nomination for another term as senator. “I’m a proud conservative, but Republicans cannot do it by themselves.”
He said the last time one party – the Democrats – tried to figure out something on their own, the result was the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare).
“ObamaCare is not working,” he said, adding that the economy is suffering because companies scale back employee hours to part time to avoid the healthcare mandate. He said this country can’t grow business by incentivizing employers to cut hours. The system also forces people not to want to cross a certain earnings threshold to avoid losing subsidies, he said.
“If you make more money, you lose money,” he said.
The senator offered several ideas for reforming healthcare in a bipartisan fashion. For instance, he said those who participate in unhealthy behavior – such as smoking – should pay more, while those who use health savings and engage in wellness behaviors should pay less. Being able to purchase healthcare insurance across state lines will create competition, he said, adding that we also need serious malpractice reform in America.
“There are so many things that we can do that are bipartisan,” Graham said.
He warned that people who currently have private health insurance will eventually be pushed into the ObamaCare exchange and that we are headed toward a “European-style healthcare system.”
And there are consequences, he warned. Those consequences are never more evident than with Social Security and Medicaid, the senator stressed.
There are 80 million Baby Boomers who “will flood Social Security,” he said, noting that in 1935, when the entitlement was born, life expectancy was just 60. People are living longer, and there are today just three workers for every retiree, compared to 1955, when the ratio was 16 to 1, he said.
“We are not generating enough workers in our country,” Graham said. “We have to find a way to come up with new workers.”
Reforming immigration is one way. He noted how in 2012 the Professional Golf Association (PGA) staged at tournament at Kiawah Island, S.C., and needed about 300 workers at above minimum wage, with benefits, to work the event. Only a handful of people applied. He pointed out how certain jobs – such as chicken farming – were important to people’s livelihood years ago, but that today illegal immigrants are taking many of the jobs that others are no longer doing. He said it’s clear where the focus of immigration reform needs to be, joking that we aren’t being overrun by Canadians from the North … that they mostly come to South Carolina for the beach and golf.
He joked that Social Security was a pretty good system – for the government’s coffers – when life expectancy was 60 because most people would “die off” before receiving benefits. That’s not the case today. Benefits are being paid in bundles. He said the system was not set up to succeed as a model for the Baby Boom generation.
Graham said the government can – and should – do a better job helping people prepare for the Social Security age of their lives. How can the more prosperous in our society help? Graham noted one area – Medicaid and the prescription drug benefit – where he believes the federal government shouldn’t be subsidizing prescription drug bills for people making more than $250,000 a year.
“There’s not enough money going into the system to account for all the changes,” he said, referring to the increase in life expectancy and the influx of Boomers into the retirement age of life.
Foreign affairs have been in the news recently with the fear of Russia trying to annex Crimea in the Ukraine. Graham had very strong words for Russian leader Vladimir Putin. “He’s an anti-democratic defacto autocratic dictator,” Graham said. “He’s ripping off the Russian people, and they (the leaders) are living like kings.”
He also had strong words for President Obama, who he said must show leadership and not blink in the face of Putin’s moves or that Putin, and other leaders, specifically rogue dictators, will be emboldened by the U.S.’s failure to act in support of the Ukraine in a bold and decisive way. Graham said having this world crisis at a time when the U.S. military has been cut to some of its lowest levels magnifies the need to keep America’s defenses strong. Iran, for instance, might see the U.S.’s failure to act as more reason to pursue a nuclear weapon, he cautioned.
“Israel will never allow the Iranians to have a nuclear weapon without a Jewish fight,” he said, noting that how the U.S. administration acts at this time sets a precedent that radical Islamic regimes and terrorists will follow closely in making their next moves on the world stage.
“We have a weak president, a dysfunctional Congress and a war-weary public,” he said. That’s a recipe for disaster, according to the senator.
Graham repeated his long-held support for Israel, then he turned to questions from the audience. One was in regards to the belief that Obama is usurping the Constitution. Graham said presidential powers under Obama have been misused, and he said he supports legislation such as the “STOP (Stop This Overreaching Presidency) Bill,” which would help Congress rein in unilateral attempts to change laws from the executive branch.
“Elections matter,” Graham said, noting that people have to live with the consequences and do the best they can if they don’t work to get their preferred political party voted into federal offices.
Another audience question was about party infighting, particularly between the more conservative wing (the Tea Party) and some of the more liberal factions of the GOP. Graham called himself a “Reagan Republican,” but he said there is room under the tent for all conservatives. He said if Republicans do regain the Senate and have power in both branches of Congress, they must use the power wisely.
One thing Graham said a Republican-led Senate should do right away is take a strong look at what happened when the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi was attacked and four people were killed on Sept. 11, 2012. He said there are many questions left unanswered, and it’s not the American way to leave someone dead on the battlefield without making an effort to do something about it. In this case, that “something” would be investigating the incident thoroughly to find out more about what was known and what was done or could have been done.