(CNN)Mark Sanford thinks the state of the Republican Party at the moment can be explained entirely through the actions of his one-time colleague: South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
“We started in Congress together and he’s very much of a different school on these kinds of things and adapts where he needs to adapt to hold power,” the former South Carolina governor and House member writes in a memoir — titled “Two Roads Diverged” — out Tuesday, adding: “But I would use him as a canary in the coalmine and the degree to which he has doubled, tripled and quadrupled down on Trump says everything. Whether you like him or not, he has a good political nose for his base.”That is a correct assessment of Graham. And it’s the only one that explains how Graham went from an understudy to Sen. John McCain in the early part of this decade to a full-fledged Trumper by the end of it.
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As The New York Times put it in a recent profile of Graham:”What emerges from interviews with more than 60 people close to him, and with the senator himself, is a narrative less of transformation than of gyration — of an infinitely adaptable operator seeking validation in the proximity to power. It is that yearning for relevance, rooted in what he and others described as a childhood of privation and loss, that makes Mr. Graham’s story more than just a case study of political survival in the age of Trump.”Read MorePut more simply: Graham likes to be close to power and influence — and will do (and say) whatever it takes to get there. His beliefs are, generally speaking, fungible. While that’s not exactly the set of character traits that most of us expect (or at least hope for) in a leader, Graham’s willingness — and ability — to channel what and who is popular serves as a useful tool as we seek to understand the current state of the Republican Party.And, as Sanford notes, there’s no question that Graham believes Trump is the present and future of the Republican Party. Consider Graham’s behavior since the January 6 riot at the US Capitol.In the immediate aftermath of the insurrection, Graham took to the Senate floor to — seemingly — cut ties to the outgoing president. “Trump and I, we’ve had a hell of a journey,” said Graham. “I hate it to end this way. Oh my God, I hate it. From my point of view he’s been a consequential president. But today, first thing you’ll see. All I can say, is count me out, enough is enough.”Except that, well, he wasn’t. When, just over a month later, the Senate voted on whether to convict Trump for his role in the January 6 riot, Graham opposed that move. “This was an impeachment effort driven by passion and hatred against President Trump,” he said in a statement announcing his stance.While Graham has subsequently explained that his “count me out” statement was misconstrued — he claims that he meant to count him out of continued election fraud conversations, not that he was done with Trump — it seems far more likely that the reason for Graham’s latest flip-flop was that, in the intervening month, he took the temperature of the Republican base and found they were still hot on Trump.All of which makes Graham’s more recent proclamations about Trump and the future of the GOP even more telling”Can we move forward without President Trump? The answer is no,” Graham said in an interview with Fox News in May amid the effort to remove Rep. Liz Cheney from her leadership position with the GOP due to her public criticism of Trump. “I’ve always liked Liz Cheney but she’s made a determination that the Republican Party can’t grow with President Trump. I’ve determined we can’t grow without him.”And this on Trump from Graham: “He’s the most popular Republican in the country by a lot. If you try to drive him out of the Republican Party, half the people will leave.”What Graham is doing — as Sanford rightly pointed out — is simply channeling the base of the party. He is a reed blown by the wind of the beliefs of the Republican base.Those beliefs? That Donald Trump is the unquestioned leader of the GOP — and that there is no room for any conflict with him if you want to prosper within the party.