How a Lindsey Graham Joke Turned into a Coup Plot Against the Government
Well, you can't catch everything. This past Sunday, I was one of a handful of reporters listening to South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham make his first pitch to New Hampshire as a presidential candidate at the inaugural Politics and Pie town hall in Concord. Most of the time, I took notes; for about 6 percent of the speech, I chatted with people at the back of the room. I was slightly distracted during this answer to a question about undoing the automatic defense cuts of sequestration.
I worried about this from day one. I'm sick to my stomach. [New Hampshire Senator] Kelly Ayotte has been awesome. And here is the first thing I would do if I were President of the United States: I wouldn’t let Congress leave town until we fix this. I would literally use the military to keep them in if I had to. We’re not leaving town until we restore these defense cuts. We’re not leaving town until we restore the intel cuts. Killing terrorists is the only option other than capturing them, because they're not deterred by death.
The answer, which appears at around 1:13:20 in my tape of the town hall meeting–uploaded here–didn't get a ton of laughs. Some rueful chuckles. Not much else. I didn't write it up, and nor did the Concord Monitor or Fox News, which also had reporters in the room.
Three days later, the web site of libertarian pundit/reporter Ben Swann–who was in New Hampshire last weekend for the Free State Project-aligned Liberty Forum–posted "exclusive audio" of the quote. Swann is no fan of Graham's hawkish politics. His "Reality Check" segments have included looks at "rethinking 9/11," and his coverage of Graham has included exposes of drunk staffers and on-camera confrontations about his votes. Ron Noyes, who uploaded the New Hampshire clip at Swann's site, editorialized that the statement was "chilling" and quoted Graham's main 2014 primary opponent in saying "if he is being serious those actions would be a threat to the republic.”
Graham wasn't being serious. The military line was "not to be taken literally," according to Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop, who staffed him on the New Hampshire trip. While the Swann story quoted a blow-off from Graham's office, according to Bishop, the only outlets to reach out for clarification or comment were Mediaite and Bloomberg Politics.
These were not the only outlets that covered it. Vox.com, the explanatory journalism site, covered the Graham joke as a serious proposal. "Graham is proposing that his first act as president would be to use the military to force the legislative branch to pass his agenda," wrote Amanda Taub. "If taken literally, Graham is basically announcing his plan to stage a coup." Radio host Laura Ingraham retweeted an Atlanta Journal Constitution aggregation of the Vox story.
Indeed, most chin-stroking reactions to the Graham joke came from outlets disinclined to support his pro-immigration reform, hawkish policies. At Hot Air, Noah Rothman allowed that "maybe Graham was using the word 'literally' in the same way that Joe Biden uses the word 'literally,'" but insisted that "Graham seems to have an unhealthy infatuation with extraordinary wartime measures that the country ultimately comes to regret." At Reason, Matt Welch–author of The Myth of a Maverick, a well-reported takedown of Graham's mentor, John McCain–argued that the Graham joke revealed the depravity of the GOP's foreign policy wise men. (I worked for Reason from 2006 through 2008.)
It's important to observe that Lindsey Graham will not be punished for this. Not by his colleagues, not by the court of public opinion, not by Republicans, not by conservatives. Like his fellow ridiculously over-interventionist colleague Tom Cotton (R-Ark), he can literally say the craziest, most anti-constitutional shit related to national security, and yet about the only time conservatives will let him have it is when he goes all "Grahamnesty" on immigration.
In Graham's circle, the reaction is a cause of bafflement. The senator simply talks like this. He's sarcastic. He's hyperbolic. He did not mean that the military would literally be called in to pressure Congress any more than Joe Biden meant that 300 million-odd Americans once literally stood on a brink and looked down.
But he should get used to it. This is the second time in a few weeks that a Republican candidate has given remarks in New Hampshire, press in the room, and a gaffe was discovered post-facto when an ideological foe decided that a joke went too far. The first example came in January, when Kentucky Senator Rand Paul told a room of legislators (and reporters for Bloomberg Politics, CBS News, Buzzfeed, the Associated Press, and others) that "over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts." What reporters didn't pick up on, a tracker for American Bridge saw as a major stumble. By day's end, the story out of New Hampshire was Paul's "disability gaffe."
The 2016 candidates who expect to break through with straight talk at town halls are learning that being funny is going to cost them, once their comments are translated by the telephone games of trackers and ideological media. What may seem to reporters like Lindsey being Lindsey or Rand being Rand can become a Telling Moment–a trip to the first primary states can be remembered for nothing else.
Of course, that hasn't prevented other people from winning New Hampshire.