Big Think Interview With Lindsey Graham

Question: Do you believe that government is “broken?"

Lindsey Graham: You know, democracy is difficult to begin with and the fact that you can’t find quick solutions to hard problems is not necessarily a bad thing.  What would be a bad thing is if the institutions failed to the point they cannot find any solution to a problem over time.  Politics is like term papers.  You usually get serious right before the term paper is due.  That’s the downside of democracy: without friction, there is really no consensus.

Question: How would you describe your political ideology?

Lindsey Graham: I’m a conservative, but I think I’m a practical guy.  Ronald Reagan was one of the great conservatives of modern times and he pursued strong national defense, he was a big believer in lower taxes... but he’s able to find a solution to social security insolvency by working with Tip O’Neill. So the Reagan model of conservatism that can move the country forward is probably where I’m at. 

I like the idea that Ronald Reagan stood up to the Soviet Union without flinching, that he pursued a very business-friendly agenda in the Congress, but at the same time, he could sit down with his colleagues on the other side and, in a friendly way, move the ball forward on big issues like social security.  So I wish this Congress coming in to being next January would look at what Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill did on social security is a way to maybe find a breakthrough on that topic.

Question: How would you solve the problems facing our nation?

Lindsey Graham:  Three things I would do if I were king, one, I’d be benevolent, but firm, and I don’t expect to be king.  But I would like the country to look at entitlement reform in a serious way.  Now, what do I mean by that?  When I look at America, I don’t see an under-taxed nation, I see a nation struggling to create jobs in a global economy that’s changed forever and we’re over-promising as a nation.  We made promises to future generations we can’t keep.

So what would I do if I could?  I would sit Republicans and Democrats down and fix social security, because that is eminently doable.  I would change the age of retirement.  We’re living longer, that’s the good news.  The bad new is these entitlement programs haven’t had the age adjusted.  So I would move the age somewhere in the 69 range, slowly over time, for people under 55.  I would not affect people on social security or near retirement.

I would also ask people of my income level to take less in benefits, because the promises we’ve made to future generations of Americans are unsustainable.  We’ve got 3 workers for every social security retiree today; in 20 years we’ll have 2.  When I was born in ’55, we had 16 for every retiree.  So we’re having less people and more retirees living longer.  So I would adjust the age and I would recalculate benefits for people in my income level. 

The second thing I would do for the country is I would create a legal infrastructure that would allow our country to be at war, but within our values. The CIA no longer interrogates terror suspects.  I’m not for waterboarding, but I’m also not for taking the CIA out of the interrogation business.  The Army Field Manual is the only document we have now to interrogate enemy combatants, people suspected of terrorism.  Somewhere between the Army Field Manual, which is published online, and water boarding, which I think is a bad way to interrogate people, we should find a middle ground, allow the CIA to do enhanced interrogations within our values, but not tell the enemy what’s coming their way.

I would make sure that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11 is tried in military commissions. He’s been held under the law of war for six or seven years, I think it’s a mistake to put him in civilian court.  We’re at war, we’re fighting a war, not a crime.

Which leads me to energy policy.  We use more Mideast oil today, we’re dependent on Mideast oil today, than we were before 9/11.  That’s a national security nightmare. So what I’d like to do, is the third thing, is to become energy independent, create jobs in low carbon technologies, like wind, solar, and nuclear, and the third thing is clean up the air.  If my generation of political leaders could break our dependency on foreign oil, create a low-carbon economy that would allow America to develop technology and create new jobs for future generations, and pass on to the future generations cleaner air, that would be a pretty good use of my time. 

Question: Why are many environmentalists loath to accept nuclear energy?

Lindsey Graham:  Well, I think there’s a mindset from the Chernobyl accident that, you know, nuclear power is verboten.  Quite frankly, 80% of the power in France comes from the nuclear industry, surely we can be as bold as the French.  There’s a waste disposal problem; the French have a reprocessing system.  Secretary Chu, whom I admire greatly in this administration, believes that in the next 10 or 15 years new technology will develop better than reprocessing.  So what I’m willing, work with administration to provide a jump start of building nuclear power plants, loan guarantees that will back these plants up, reform the regulatory process, like they do in France, so that we can, you know, really get on with developing power. 

I understand environmental concerns, but every technology has some downside.  I think nuclear power has proven over time to be a safe, reliable form of power.  And the good news: it doesn’t emit CO2. The other good news is, it creates a lot of high tech jobs that we need.

And a lot of environmentalists are changing their position.  The environmental community, I’ve tried to work on a comprehensive energy bill with Senator Lieberman and Kerry, was pretty practical, quite frankly.

Question: How should we reform immigration policy?

Lindsey Graham: In 2007, we tried comprehensive immigration reform.  I, along with Senator Kennedy, McCain, Kyl, Senator Menendez and others, put together a comprehensive bill that focused on border security, a temporary worker program so our employers could access labor from overseas in a win/win fashion.  We had an employer verification system, making it harder to hire illegal immigrants and we did what I thought a rational thing with the 12 million illegal immigrants.  We'd allow them to raise their hands, to identify themselves, and if they’d committed no crime other than breaking our immigration laws, they were given a legal status, and they could earn their way to citizenship only after getting behind those who are doing it right.  So to come out of the shadows, you would be a biometrically identified, you would be required to learn our language, pay a fine for the crime you committed, get in the back of the line to become a citizen, and it would take from 8 to 13 years in that process to get to citizenship, if that was your goal.

So, I think that is a workable solution that needs to be refined.  What’s happened from 2007 to now is the border is less secure and the violence in Mexico is getting out of control.  So you have to look at 2010, 2011 immigration politics through the Arizona eyes.  The people in Arizona feel under siege, they passed a statute that’s controversial, but other states are taking up similar statutes.  So the tide is turned to where the American people are focusing on securing our borders, which I think is a good thing.  But I think most Americans 2 to 1, still believe that you have to rational and logical when it comes to the 12 million.

On our southern border, life is not so good.  If I lived in a southern hemisphere nation that had no hopes, I’d be enticed to come to America.  And quite frankly, we’re going to need immigrants.  We’re a declining population, as I said before.  Japan has been very xenophobic; they don’t have a workforce.  We’re going to need immigrants as far as the eye can see, I just want them to become legal and do it in a win/win way.

Question: Why should we revisit the 14th Amendment?

Lindsey Graham: In 1866, they never envisioned the world in which we live in today, where we have a flood of illegal immigrants coming, mainly from our southern border.

The 14th Amendment has been interpreted three times by our Supreme Court to say that if you were born in the United States, even if you were here in illegal status or your parents were here in illegal status, you’re automatically entitled to citizenship.  There are a lot of people who come to this country for the very purpose of having a child.  Some break our law by coming across the border in our border states, to go to American hospitals to have a child, so that child will become a citizen, having an anchor to the country.  There are other people, rich people mainly, from the Mideast and Asia, who come to America on tourist visas for the purpose of having a child in an American resort with a hospital to gain citizenship.  I think those two ways of conferring citizenship really undermine the value of citizenship. 

So I think that’s not an unreasonable request in a prospective fashion, to change the 14th amendment by allowing the Congress to set rules on citizenship.

And what I would say is if you’re a student studying here and you have a child, they’re automatically a citizen.  If you’re a temporary worker and you have a child, you’re automatically a citizen.  In other words, if you’re adding value to our country, if you have a good connection with America, then your child will be conferred citizenship.  You would not be given citizenship under my proposal if you’re just visiting the country as a tourist, and you would not be given citizenship if you broke our law and had a child here in illegal status.  To me, that makes sense.  And I think that’s a logical way to move forward.

The American people are looking for solutions to prevent the third wave of illegal immigration.  Ronald Reagan gave amnesty to 3 million, now we have 12.  What I have to do to sell this in South Carolina is to prove to the people in my state we’re not going to have a third wave of illegal immigration 20 years from now. That’s why we need to look at the 14th amendment.

Question: Are you open to reconsidering other parts of the Constitution?

Lindsey Graham:  I’m always open to making sure the Constitution makes sense in the time we live.  I’d like to add the balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.  I’m convinced that Republicans and Democrats are not going to do the hard things to balance our budget, saying no to different groups unless a Constitutional requirement to balance the budget, like most states have.  So yes, I think the constitution is a sacred document in many ways, but it’s a governing document. 

Recorded December 1, 2010
Interviewed by Alicia Menendez

A conversation with the U.S. Senator.

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