Sunday, July 3, 2022
July 3, 2022

Linkedin Pinterest

Lindsey Graham and Joe Biden used to be close. Can they ever be friends again?


President Joe Biden was acknowledging lawmakers he was supposed to thank at a White House bill signing when he came across the name on the teleprompter of his former friend and colleague Lindsey Graham.

Biden lowered his voice and gave a mocking side eye as he said the Republican lawmaker’s name.

“By the way, Lindsey used to be a really close friend. I’m going to work on it again,” Biden added, drawing laughter from within the room, as he turned his gaze back to Graham.

The entreaty did not sit well with Graham, who was furious with Biden for choosing federal appeals court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson over South Carolina Judge J. Michelle Childs for a vacancy on the Supreme Court.

“He made a decision,” Graham said at the U.S. Capitol after he attempted to block Jackson’s appointment from moving forward.

Biden and Graham were once as chummy as two Washington politicians with legal backgrounds from opposing political parties and different regions could be until partisan politics pulled them apart. They bonded over their devotion to family and mutual interest in foreign policy in the hallways of the Senate and during congressional delegation trips abroad.

Biden once pledged to help Graham when his Senate buddy was up for reelection. Graham later called Biden “as good a man as God ever created.”

Close friends and allies of Graham and Biden say that it will take sustained effort to repair what has devolved into a contentious relationship that has been laden with public insults.

“The difficulty is that it’s become very personal. And I think it can only be resolved on a personal basis. I don’t think it’s a matter of political brokerage,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who also clashed with Graham during Jackson’s appointment process.

The schism between Biden and Graham formed over several years during former Republican President Donald Trump’s term in office.

Biden had returned home to Delaware to take a respite from politics after the death of his son Beau and more than 40 consecutive years in elected office. The following year, Graham’s closest friend in the Senate, former Arizona Sen. John McCain, died. Both deaths were caused by brain cancer.

The tragedies could have brought Graham and Biden closer together — yet Graham’s allegiance was already shifting toward the new leader of his party. Graham had previously called Trump a “bigot” and a “nut job,” but soon, he began golfing on weekends at Trump’s privately owned clubs.

By the time Biden was making his comeback bid, Graham was investigating the former vice president and the business dealings of his son, Hunter Biden.

Joe Biden later called Graham a “personal disappointment.” Jill Biden went further, putting her husband’s friendship with Graham in the past.

“We used to be great friends,” she told CNN, adding, “It’s hard when you consider somebody a friend and they’ve said so many things, so many negative things. And that’s been a little hurtful.”

Valerie Biden Owens, the sitting president’s younger sister and former campaign manager, wrote in her recently released memoir that Graham is “unrecognizable to me today,” and called him “sycophant-in-chief” to Trump, according to Business Insider.

With the announcement of Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement from the Supreme Court, it briefly appeared that Graham and Biden, both former chairmen of the Senate Judiciary Committee, would be back on the same side of a critical issue.

Graham was one of three Republican senators who supported Jackson’s appointment to the D.C. Circuit.

But when it came time to question Jackson at her Senate hearing last month, Graham assailed Biden’s nominee and complained that Biden selected her instead of Childs.

“It’s not about friendship. I like him fine. It’s about his competency,” Graham told McClatchy afterward. “It’s a business to me. I’m willing to work with him.”

It was always that way with Graham, according to South Carolina Republican political operatives.

“Lindsey’s always been a bit of a loner,” said David Woodard, a retired Clemson University political science professor who ran Graham’s early congressional campaigns. “He had somebody with the senator from Arizona, but now that guy’s gone. He just doesn’t confide much in people.”

‘The Three Amigos’

Graham had a unique friendship with McCain and former longtime Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat turned independent who endorsed Biden in the 2020 election.

In a town where bipartisan relationships are often put to the test, the “three amigos” had an unbreakable bond. Lieberman said in an interview that while he disagrees with Graham on Jackson, “I don’t think he could do anything that would break our friendship.”

Sitting onstage across from McCain, as Graham sat in the audience, Biden suggested at the Sedona Forum in 2013 that there was always a chance to find common ground with the Republican senators.

“How many times have we hollered at each other? No, for real, I think people should know this,” Biden said, shifting forward in his seat. “How many times as friends we would get in heated arguments, like brothers, and get in heated arguments with different philosophies?”

“But at the end of the day,” Biden continued, “when you know the person you’re dealing with was being truthful with you and cared deeply about what they were saying, there’s always a way to work it out.”

The days of collegial dealmaking that were a signature feature of the upper chamber when the senators and Biden served together have faded, and the legislative body has become increasingly polarized and hyperpartisan.

Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist, said research indicates the Senate is now more politicized than it has ever been.

“A lot of what Lindsey Graham does is performative, and it’s performative in a way that makes sure he has influence in Washington and power back home,” said Huffmon, who also leads the Winthrop Poll, a nonpartisan surveyor that has been tracking political attitudes in South Carolina since 2002. “That’s why he can be anti-Trump, but then be one of Trump’s closest friends.”

Graham has sought to maintain a strong relationship with Trump, who he speaks to frequently. But even that relationship has been complicated.

After Graham said it was “inappropriate” for Trump to suggest he would pardon Jan. 6 Capitol rioters, if he is elected president again, Trump fired back, calling Graham a “RINO” — a GOP insult that stands for “Republican in Name Only.”

Just last month, Trump called Graham “the progressive senator from South Carolina,” and dined with him at Mar-a-Lago in the same weekend. When Jackson’s hearings began several days later, Graham emerged as one of Jackson’s most ferocious questioners.

Supreme Court confirmation hearings, which were once routine question-and-answer sessions, have since become televised auditions for senators who harbor presidential ambitions. And Graham, who has served in the Senate for nearly 20 years and briefly ran for president in 2015, has taken advantage, Huffmon said.

“He is amazing at understanding which way the winds are about to blow and he plants his flag in that direction,” Huffmon said of Graham’s political instincts.

Woodard, one of Graham’s former campaign managers, said the South Carolina Republican also has a knack for keeping a pulse on GOP voter sentiment, giving Graham the ability to “say things that people are thinking almost before they’re thinking it.”

Break with Biden

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a briefing that Biden wasn’t overly concerned with Graham’s decision not to support Jackson’s nomination.

“I wouldn’t say the president is spending a lot of time thinking about it,” Psaki said.

The Democratic National Committee went where the White House wouldn’t, accusing Graham in an email of throwing a “weeks-long temper tantrum.”

DNC Chair Jaime Harrison, who unsuccessfully challenged Graham in 2020 for a seat in the Senate, said in an interview that Graham epitomizes the Harry Truman adage that “if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

“Because if Lindsey Graham’s your friend, and he is constantly critiquing and demonizing the president — and even the president’s family — then that’s not friendship,” Harrison said.

Harrison also called Graham’s approach to questioning Jackson performative. “His audience is always Donald Trump,” he said. “The fake outrage, the interruptions, the huffing — save the drama.”

Graham told McClatchy that he has “nothing personally against President Biden,” who he said had not spoken to him since entering the White House.

“It takes a desire. I mean, they’re not reaching out to any of us. I think it’s the biggest mistake they’ve made,” Graham said. “He has a lot of friends over here. I don’t know where that Joe Biden went.”

Biden campaigned as a moderate, who centered his campaign on the promise of a return to normalcy after the pandemic. But he has governed with a more progressive tilt, pushing hard for his Build Back Better package — a wide-ranging social and environmental bill.

Graham and other Republicans argue that Biden picked Jackson for the Supreme Court to satisfy the left wing of his party.

In a campaign-style video posted on his social media accounts one day after Jackson’s confirmation, Graham said Democrats had politicized the judicial appointment process.

“The game has changed,” Graham said in the video, which featured a 2005 interview clip of Biden. “They destroy conservative judges and expect us to just clap and vote ‘Yes.’ That’s ridiculous, dangerous, and it is not going to happen.”

Old pros

Graham expressed an openness at the Capitol to working with Biden on issues of mutual agreement. He rattled off possibilities such as social media regulation, Russia’s war against Ukraine, China policy and Middle East peace.

He indicated he would like Biden to get more aggressive with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who Biden has since accused of architecting a genocide in Ukraine. Graham tweeted Thursday that he “couldn’t agree more “ with the foreign policy shift.

Lieberman said that Graham and Biden are realists who will team up when their positions align.

“I think these are two pros in the best sense of the word, and they have history,” Lieberman said. “So while President Biden may be understandably upset, let’s say, by some of Lindsey’s questioning of Judge Jackson or other responses to the Biden administration, if he thinks they could work together on something and get it done, they’ll do it. I would be surprised if they don’t.”

Former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, a close friend and outside adviser to Biden, said the disagreements between the two men are not insurmountable and Graham is not so ideological that he is unwilling to entertain alternative solutions.

“No one has the luxury of maintaining some sort of permanent hostilities, unless you don’t understand your job, and Lindsey Graham — while I may disagree with on a lot of issues over the years — I think understands that every new issue presents new opportunities and problems,” said Dodd, who spent three decades in the Senate.

Independent Sen. Angus King, who represents Maine and caucuses with Democrats, said that even though Graham could not get past the Childs incident quickly enough to vote for Jackson, there’s still hope for his relationship with Biden.

“Nothing’s irreparable with Lindsey,” King said. “He may oppose you this weekend. Next week, he’ll support you.”

Support local journalism

Your tax-deductible donation to The Columbian’s Community Funded Journalism program will contribute to better local reporting on key issues, including homelessness, housing, transportation and the environment. Reporters will focus on narrative, investigative and data-driven storytelling.

Local journalism needs your help. It’s an essential part of a healthy community and a healthy democracy.

Community Funded Journalism logo