Q: There are now reports coming out of Syria talking about the extremist members of Assad’s opposition that are forcing the moderate rebels to fight on two fronts. Do you still believe the United States should support the opposition as you previously proposed even though the opposition, we now know for sure includes these extremist groups?
Senator Graham: Absolutely, we need to support the opposition in Syria that would replace Assad and live in peace with us and their neighbors. Ansar al-Sharia is a radical Islamic, al Qaeda affiliated group that is coming into Syria from Iraq and other places. They’re coming to kill Shiites. They’re filling vacuums; they’re not going to run Syria. I’ve been there a lot. This whole fight in Syria is not to replace Assad with al Qaeda. The Syrian people started this revolution through peaceful demonstrations. These radical Islamists are hijacking this revolution. To think that Assad winning is good for us I think is just misguided. Iran and Russia are backing Assad. We need to be backing that Syrian that could replace Assad and live at peace with us. AQ is not that group; most of them are not Syrians. So this leading from behind caught up with us. Two years ago, if we had weighed in on behalf of the opposition there were less than 200 AQ fighters. Now there is 10,000. If this war goes on another year there will be 20,000. The King of Jordan has been compromised by the civil war in Syria that is blowing over into his kingdom. There are almost a million refugees by the end of next year, the end of this year, and Jordan is the last moderate voice in the Mideast. So what happens in Syria is not contained in Syria. If this war keeps going and Assad wins, America is a big loser because when the President says the guy’s gotta go and he doesn’t go, that diminishes us. The Iranians are backing Assad for a reason. We need to be backing people who would replace Assad who are not radical Islamists and that’s most Syrians.
And then we’ll turn our attention to al Qaeda. Every al Qaeda guy we can kill is a good thing. Killing them and capturing them is a good thing. Most Syrians are not al Qaeda sympathizers. To say that, most people just don’t understand that most Syrians want Assad to go because he is a brutal dictator not to become an al Qaeda satellite country. Al Qaeda is there to fill a vacuum. They’ve come to take advantage of lack of superiority and take their twisted view of the Mideast and try to impose it on Syrians. They Syrian people are fighting on two fronts. Why? Because they’ve got two enemies: al Qaeda and Assad.
Q: On October 14, Nancy Mace’s campaign released a statement that read, in part, “Senator Graham is a long time dealmaker on Capitol Hill. It’s time he quit trying to act as if he is fighting for conservative principles when the reality is, he’s not.” What do you say to Mrs. Mace and your constituents that have lost faith in your ability to represent South Carolinians?
Senator Graham: Well you know I’m a Strom Thurmond, Carol Campbell, Ronald Reagan Republican. You know, I’ve got a conservative voting record fiscally and socially that I’ll put up against anybody’s. But like President Reagan, there comes a time to do something good for the country. SS was about to fall apart in 1983. Ronald Reagan and Tipp O’Neal working together were able to save SS from eminent bankruptcy. Senator Thurmond, Joe Biden spoke at Senator Thurmond’s funeral, not because he agreed with Senator Thurmond, but he liked Senator Thurmond. Where they could find agreement, they would. When they could find ways to help they would. I want to deepen the Port of Charleston. If we don’t get it to 50 feet, its gonna ruin our economy. One in five jobs in South Carolina come from the Port of Charleston. It needs to be made deeper to deal with these big ships coming on the oceans in 2015. Well how do you do that? You work with other people. So I think most conservatives expect us to find common ground where we can, fight when we must. I’m a good fighter, but I’ll also find common ground. Around the military, you know Hillary Clinton and Lindsey Graham introduced legislation to allow reservists to become eligible for military health care full time. One in five, 25% of reservists were ineligible for active duty when they were called up because of dental problems. Most of them didn’t have, maybe 20%, most of them didn’t have dental coverage. So, working with Senator Clinton, back then, we were able to get every military reserve member and their families the military health care so they would be ready for the fight. But also help that family with their health care needs. Those kind of things make sense to me. Fighting ObamaCare makes sense to me, you know, fighting this liberal agenda makes sense to me. But somebody’s gotta look out for the best interests of the country and I’m going to be one of those somebody’s.
There are some Democrats who think you can’t ever talk to Republicans and there are Republicans, so-called Republicans, that say you can’t ever talk to Dems. I think most Americans want conservatives and liberals and moderates to work together where it makes sense. You know, I mean, Ronald Reagan is sort of my mentor. If he got 80% of what he wanted, it was a good day. He put national security first at the federal level so I am not a libertarian; I am a Ronald Reagan Republican.
Q: How would you say South Carolina is in a better place now than it was in 1994 when you first went to Washington?
Senator Graham: I think Boeing is a good example of how far we’ve come. Boeing picked us, they could’ve gone anywhere in the world. There are only three or four places in the entire world that make their planes, we’re one of them. I helped recruit Boeing. Boeing came to South Carolina because we have a good work force. We have very business friendly government policies, we don’t have unions. I was a reliable person when it came to funding the military. Boeing makes a lot of military airplanes, so they knew they had in me and others a supportive delegation. I think what’s happened since 1995, we’ve reformed welfare. I was a Contract with America voter, you know, we changed the eligibility for welfare back in the 90s and paid dividends and reduced the welfare rolls by half. We had four balanced budgets during my first time in Congress because of what we were able to do with [President] Clinton. But I think I’ve been a very good senator for hometown needs. You know, Strom was pretty darn good, tough act to follow. But when it comes to the Port of Charleston, I made that my number one reason for living because if that port fails, the economy fails. When it comes to Savannah River Site, you know, I kept it viable. We’ve got the national lab there. I never lost sight of being not only a national senator, but a South Carolina senator. I think if you ask businesses in this state they will say that I’m their most reliable partner.
Q: Explain your immigration plan for us.
Senator Graham: Illegal immigration is a national security threat. It’s an economic threat. There’s nothing worse for the working man and woman to compete against an illegal immigrant that gets paid cash under the table. So my proposal is bring them out of the shadows biometrically identify and make them pass English exams to stay, put them in the back of the line to become citizens, make them pay taxes, make them pay a fine, but have a practical approach to the eleven million and make them wait ten years before they can even apply for a green card. Secure the border and create an employee verification system. Illegal immigration is bad for this country and it needs to stop. My goal is 20 years from now not to have 20 million more, to fix it once and for all. Securing the border is part of it, but if you don’t control who gets a job we’re still going to have this problem. We need to control who gets a job. And if you don’t have a practical solution to the 11 million [illegal immigrants], you’re going backwards. So, I’m tired of talking about it, I’d like to fix it. You’ve gotta work with Democrats and Republicans to come up with a solution. If we don’t, 10 years from now if we haven’t fixed our illegal immigration system we will pay heavy prices.
Q: I’ve had several people ask me about your “yes” vote last week on the debt ceiling. Why did you vote “yes?”
Senator Graham: Here’s what I voted for: to reopen the government because it’s killing us as a party in this country. Nobody in their right mind wants to default on their debt. If we hadn’t, if we had gotten to October 17th and we had not raised the debt ceiling, there’d have been a financial crisis throughout the world. So we raised it to February. I’m not going to raise the debt ceiling for long periods of time until we’ve addressed why we are in debt. We’ve put ourselves in a bad spot. We overplayed our hand. Anybody who thought that the government shut down was working well for the country and Republicans, I just disagree with them. I could understand a “no” vote because the deal we came up with wasn’t that good, it was kicking the can down the road; but we had no leverage. So when it came time to answer the question “do you think we should end the government shutdown”, my answer was yes. “Do you think we should avoid default”, my answer was yes. Now what am I gonna do between now and February? Try to work on a plan that will allow this country to stop becoming Greece, to get off the path to becoming Greece; control spending and reform entitlements and flatten out the tax code. You know, at the end of the day, this government shutdown, we [Republicans] owned it more than Democrats. I have fought against ObamaCare since day one, I voted against it, I continue to attack it in every way I know how, but to suggest that the President would have signed a bill defunding ObamaCare if we didn’t, to say that we were gonna get him to sign a bill to defund his signature issue by shutting down the government never made a whole lot of sense to me. So, that’s behind us. Going forward I want to have an opt out bill.
Q: Should there be a Department of Education or do you think education should be the responsibility of the respective states?
Senator Graham: You know, at the federal level I think the Department of Education needs to be really, (indiscernible). You know, help people go to college. Really poor urban districts where they don’t have money to offer after school care, where the federal government can help. Federal funding, now, for education, 7% of it is the federal government, but the mandates from the federal government bother me. I don’t want the federal government to be able to fund education at 7% and be able to run schools. So that’s why I think Common Core is a bad idea. That is a state initiative. I’m very leery of the federal government or a group of states dictating policies for local schools. The key to education success in the 21st century is to have a confident teacher and empower the parents and classrooms that can access the technology that they have in China and India that their kids are gonna have to compete with our kids. So the federal government’s role in education should be the minimalist and this idea that having all 50 states come up with a one size fits all policy is equally bad. Education should be focused on the student at the closest level possible.
Q: What role does your faith play in the decisions you make as our senator in Washington?
Senator Graham: You know, if you’re a person of faith, you realize the limitations of being a human being, the limitations of any single individual. So I think smart people of faith rely on their faith to give them courage. Rather than me asking God to fix Medicare, I just ask God to give me the courage to deal with Medicare because I think its broken. That is what I pray for more than anything else is to have the courage of my convictions. You know, to be grounded in who I am. I talk to my family and I talk to my friends who will be with me long after politics. The people that I know the best and have grown up with are still my best supporters. They knew me long before I was Senator Graham. But we live in a dangerous time. Radical Islam would kill us all if it could. I worry that the foreign policy of Barack Obama is worse than his economic policy. I believe that our friends in Israel, the State of Israel could, is under siege by radical Islam. If the Iranians had a nuclear weapon they would destroy us and the State of Israel. So I pray for courage to stand up and speak truth to power. I think that is what every politician should pray for, is the strength of their convictions. I know basically that we are on the road to Greece and if we don’t reform entitlements and fix the tax code, our economy can’t grow. I believe that radical Islam is every bit a threat that Nazi Germany was to our way of life, and I’m going to fight it. I want to keep the fight over there. So, my faith means a lot to me; it keeps me well grounded. But the thing that I try to remember is that my time in politics will come and go. My time on this earth is very short. My goal is to go to Heaven and work backwards: to be the best senator I can be for the State of South Carolina and the people of the United States. And for me to do that, I have got to be unafraid of my job. So, I pray for the courage to do what I think is right and accepting the consequences.