LACONIA — Lindsey Graham, the senior United States Senator for South Carolina, spent the last couple of days in the Lakes Region, testing his political credentials with the Belknap County Republican Committee one evening and rallying support for the Export-Import Bank the next afternoon, all the while stirring speculation about his presidential aspirations.
"We've got a mess on our hands," Graham told some two dozen fellow Republicans, who as snow fell waited more than half-an-hour for him to join their monthly meeting at the Top of the Town in Belmont. Speaking in his genteel drawl, he inventoried the challenges facing the country, highlighting the risks to national security and importance of national defense.
Best known for his hawkish approach to foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, Graham began with a survey of the threats posed by what he called "radical Islam. I've never been more worried than today, " he continued. "Allah is bad news for us." Quipping that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry "probably have never bought a car," he deplored negotiating with Iran to forestall its nuclear program. Graham said that Iran is sponsoring terrorism and fomenting unrest throughout the Middle East and insisted no agreement should be negotiated until its conduct changes.
ISIL, Graham said, was a threat to American security second only to Iran. In particular, he warned that if Iran developed a nuclear weapon, it would spark an arms race in the Middle East, which would lead to nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorist organizations. Calling for more aggressive intervention, he said, "I don't know to defend America with all of us staying at home" and added: "Some must die."
As president, Graham said he would have one overriding goal "to make large terrorist organizations small, rich terrorist organizations poor and leave terrorists no place to sleep at night without worrying about bombs dropping on their heads."
At home, Graham stressed the need for energy independence so the United States would no longer borrow money from Chinese, who he said "don't like us," to buy oil from the Middle East, where he repeated "people don't like us."
Social Security, he remarked, represented an unfunded liability of $70 trillion. When he asked those born before 1950 to raise their hands, most did, but when he asked those born since 1980 to follow suit, only one hand went up. "You're screwed," he remarked, adding that reform is required to ensure benefits for future generations. Graham noted that with retirement of the Baby Boom generation and the aging of the population the workforce is shrinking, highlighting the urgency of a "rational immigration policy."
The next day, Graham, accompanied by U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, visited New Hampshire Ball Bearing's plant on Lexington Drive to pitch the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which for 80 years has financed the export of American products abroad, but finds itself under attack from conservatives as a mainstay of crony capitalism..
Stepping into the conference room, Graham picked up a placard picturing the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which is built in South Carolina. The aircraft industry purchases almost half and Boeing nearly a fifth of NHBB's output of precision machined components. Graham explained that airlines in developing countries, where sales are facilitated by financial packages, represent a major market for Boeing's products and that eight of ten Dreamliners are eligible for financing through the Ex-Im Bank.
Scuttling the Ex-Im Bank, Graham said, "has become a cause celebre for certain conservative groups," which have invested heavily in their effort.
He calculated the odds on reauthorization at "50/50 politically."
Graham warned that without the Ex-Im Bank American producers, like Boeing, will be at a severe competitive advantage with China, which operates a similar bank with resources greater than the United States, Germany, France and Britain. He said without the financing the bank offers Boeing, NHBB and General Electric, which builds aircraft engines "will be out of business." Boeing, he noted, "is the tie between New Hampshire and South Carolina."
"To my conservative friends," said Graham, "you picked the wrong program. If you're running president, you should come to New Hampshire and tell these people why they need t lose their jobs for your ideological purity."
Ayotte remarked that the bank "returns money to the treasury and creates American jobs" and asked "how common is that in Washington."
Graham and Ayotte, who he dubbed "the Margaret Thatcher of the Republican Party" the night before, also advocated increased defense spending in what he said is "a time of great peril."
This was Graham's third visit to the state.
"I'm looking for spring and apparently I have to keep coming," he remarked, adding that he expected to decide whether or not to run for president by the end of May.