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Op-ed | Lindsey Graham: Jeb Bush’s wingman on immigration

All things being equal, Lindsey Graham would like to be president. The South Carolina senator visited New Hampshire this week, pursuing the dodgy mix of running for the Republican presidential nomination while championing comprehensive immigration reform.

From the Associated Press:

“The South Carolina senator said Republicans need to work with Democrats to craft a plan that secures the border and creates a path to legal status for the 11 million people who are living in the U.S. illegally. He says asking those people to leave on their own is not realistic.”

Therein lies a triple offense against the Republican party base. First: saying Republicans should work with the reviled Democrats. Second: supporting a path to legalization for the equally reviled 11 million. And third: rubbing it in that 11 million human beings are unlikely to dematerialize within U.S. borders anytime soon.

Until January, when Graham announced his 2016 exploratory committee, Jeb Bush was clearly the lead heretic in the Republican presidential contest. Like Graham, Bush supports eventual legal status for those 11 million. Ostensibly, Bush and Graham (and, in theory at least, former New York Governor George Pataki) are now vying for the same Republican primary voters. There are unlikely to be enough of their ilk to go around. In a recent Bloomberg Politics-Saint Anselm College poll in New Hampshire, 41 percent of likely Republican primary voters characterized Bush’s immigration stance as a “deal killer” for the nomination; only 22 percent considered it “not a real problem.”

Graham is widely considered to be among the longest of presidential longshots. He hopes to catapult himself into the top tier with a strong showing in New Hampshire followed by victory in South Carolina. Any success Graham does enjoy seems likely to come at Bush’s expense. “He pulls away from Jeb Bush, doesn’t he?” said South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney in a piece by David Weigel of Bloomberg Politics.

Then again, Graham might be less of a threat to Bush and more of an ally – and example. Graham prevailed in his own contested primary re-election last year despite standing by his support for immigration reform. His primary opposition was weak and fractured, but even in South Carolina, a path to legalization was not a “deal killer” in the end.

In 2012, immigration reform with a path to citizenship or legalization was deemed beyond the pale in the Republican presidential primary. The congressional wing of the GOP has only hardened its opposition since then. Bush’s position on immigration (not to mention his support for Common Core educational standards) may or may not be out of bounds this time. But it seems doubtful that Graham will hurt Bush’s cause too much. It might even help Bush to have an ideological wingman in the race strongly making the case that immigration reform belongs in the conservative catechism.

Political scientist David Karol of the University of Maryland doesn’t buy that Graham can much alter the shape of Republican debate on such a visceral issue. “The idea that people are focused on politics enough to watch a primary debate yet have immigration attitudes sufficiently malleable that a marginal presidential candidate changes their minds is not plausible to me,” he e-mailed.

Hans Noel, a political scientist at Georgetown University (and a co-author with Karol of a study of political parties), mostly concurs. “I do think, though, (and I think David would agree) that party platforms can and do evolve,” he e-mailed. “And the more Republicans who openly take a position, the more acceptable that position will be within the party, both because some Republicans will simply take cues, and because some Republicans who would like to take that position will see that it is not necessarily fatal.”

Republicans have turned sharply against immigration in general since 2013. Leadership in the party on the issue of undocumented immigrants has passed from Senators Marco Rubio and John McCain and others looking for a solution to Representative Steve King and those looking mainly for a scapegoat. Graham is unlikely to coax his party out of its hard place. His presence on the stage won’t clear a path to citizenship. But it might make Bush’s path just a little easier.