Andrew Harnik, AP
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., accompanied by Ranking Member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., right, questions Attorney General nominee William Barr during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — If loyalty only goes so far, Sen. Lindsey Graham's goes every which way — depending on the day, week, month — or proximity to Election Day.

One day, he may think Donald Trump is a "kook." That was Graham's description of Trump in 2016, shortly after he'd ended his own campaign for president. Or, he may think Trump is "presidential," as he said recently in appraising Trump's speech from the Oval Office on border security.

What did they do with Lindsey Graham, one might reasonably ask? If you posed this question to random people on Capitol Hill, you might hear them say, Aw, that's just Lindsey. He's in cycle.

If this sounds vaguely endocrinal, well, suit yourself. What it means, of course, is that Graham is up for re-election in 2020. When you're in one of the redder states in the union, you'd best cheer for the Man from MAGA or risk fading into local history.

It isn't unusual for politicians to tweak their language or style, to soften or toughen rhetoric as one's audience pleases. Still, there's something almost comical about Graham's toughening stances and head-snapping reversals. It's as though his body has been occupied by someone else, his inner Terminator liberated at last, — in part, perhaps, because he's no longer the late Sen. John McCain's wingman. He's Maverick now.

Whatever else he intends, Graham has always known how to play the media and keep himself in the headlines. This may explain his and Trump's recent comity, which can be traced to a lunch in March 2017 when the two found common ground in, among other things, an affection for playing golf. They are also both showmen and may share some mutual respect. Both love to be center stage and both seem to have a similar knack for giving people what they want. The president and the apprentice.

Confession: I love Graham — for all the right reasons. He's a mensch who'd give you the shirt off his back, whether you needed it or not. He's a good guy, brought up hard, who transcended tragedy (both parents died when he was in college, leaving him to care for his then-13-year-old sister). He's a true patriot, who served in the U.S. Air Force JAG corps and then the Air Force Reserve as he was rising from lawyer to congressman to the U.S. Senate.

He is also very funny, as debate viewers will recall from his 2015 performances. His best lines from those debates were spontaneous, quick-witted and true. We delighted in his unfiltered answers to questions, such as: "You know how to make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to hell." Or, if Trump were to win, the Islamic State "would be dancing in the streets; they just don't believe in dancing."

Funny then, but no more. Graham has become a lead gladiator for a southern border wall, even recently advising Trump to invoke national emergency powers to fund it. From "Little Jerk," McCain's affectionate nickname for Graham, to Maximus in a few short months. No longer is Trump a "kook." In 2017, Graham repeated the word but this time in taking issue with the press for "this endless attempt to label the guy as some kind of kook not fit to be president."

But then Monday happened. The president turned on Maximus, rejecting Graham's suggestion to temporarily reopen the government while the wall debate continues. The mind meld lost its connection. Do we sense a split after all Graham has done, not least his fiery attack on Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Brett Kavanaugh proceedings, which Graham called an "unethical sham"?

Instantly, Graham became a meme sensation on the right. On the left, you'd have thought he had called Kavanaugh's accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, "bat—— crazy," a term he previously had used to describe the GOP for its support of Trump.

4 comments on this story

As we enter 2019, the Grahamster is full of brio and bluster, ready to rush Texas with his own fence-post digger. His speechwriter must surely be busy preparing text for the senator's remarks upon the groundbreaking, perchance to include: "President Trump, build this wall!" In the meantime, as Judiciary Committee chair, Graham has vowed that the next Supreme Court justice will be a conservative, as though anyone doubted it.

One can hardly wait, but not for long. The night is young, the news breaks 24/7, and we've nearly two more years to wonder what Graham will say, growl, hiss, spit, growl, whisper or sing, hallelujah! May his cycle be unbroken.