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South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican presidential candidate, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the fight against the Islamic State group, his stance on Social Security and retirement, why he supports increasing legal immigration, plus how his life was turned upside down by the death of his parents and the prospect of becoming America’s first bachelor president since Grover Cleveland.
The 2016 race for president reached a clear critical mass, with four more candidates announcing this week. The first of those came Monday in a small town in South Carolina from the state's senior senator, Lindsey Graham.
As part of our series of interviews with presidential candidates, he joins me now from New York.
Senator Graham, thank you for being with us.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, Republican Presidential Candidate:
You're going to be interviewing people all year, it looks like.
So, Senator, in your announcement speech this week, you talked about wanting to be the president to protect America. You talked about serious threats, about the world exploding in terror and violence. And you said there are forces trying to kill us.
Just how vulnerable and weak do you believe America is?
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:
I think, the stronger they get over there, the more exposed we are here.
There's more terrorist organizations with safe havens, weapons capability, men and money to attack us since 9/11. I'm very worried. We need to make them poor, small and on the run, because they're large, rich and entrenched. And if we don't up our game against these groups, we're going to get hit hard here.
Now, you have talked about being prepared to send troops, American troops to Iraq.
Why is that the right answer?
Well, we need lines of defenses over there so they can't come here.
The ISIL safe havens in Ramadi and Mosul and in Syria present a threat to us. I think foreign fighters flowing in to join the ranks of ISIL with Western passports, it's just a matter of time before somebody penetrates our network and hits us here.
But, Senator, as you know, you're not the only candidate talking tough, in effect, about ISIS. A number of the other Republicans are saying President Obama hasn't done enough.
Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Rick Perry today. Rick Santorum is agreeing with you, sends troops.
Why wouldn't one of them be a more capable leader than you would be?
Well, they're all fine people, but, at the end of the day, I have been to Iraq and Afghanistan as a reservist and as a United States senator over 30 times. I have been in the Air Force for 33 years.
I would put my credentials up against anyone in terms of understanding the region, the players. I know almost everybody over there, and, most importantly, they know me. So I have learned the hard way. I have spent a lot of time on the ground. I have made my fair share of mistakes. Disbanding the Iraqi army after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, clearly, in hindsight, was a mistake.
When Bush got it wrong, Senator McCain and myself spoke up. At the end of the day, I think I understand the dynamic that we face. And I'm best prepared to be commander in chief on day one, with all due respect to my other colleagues, including Hillary Clinton.
But how would you persuade the American people it's the right thing to do, after fighting two wars, Iraq, Afghanistan, after the fact that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has said the Iraqi troops themselves have not been willing to fight; neighboring countries are not sending troops in there?
Well, I think the American people pretty well understand that radical Islam has an agenda that includes us. They want to do three things, purify their religion — and they're killing every Muslim they get their hands on that doesn't agree with them — destroy the Christian faith — they're doing a pretty good job of that — and destroy the state of Israel and eventually come after us.
I think most Americans understand that radical Islam can't be compromised with or appeased. And the only way we can be safe is to form partnerships over there that will protect us over here. And we left Iraq too soon. And if we don't leave at least 10,000 troops behind in Afghanistan, then it will fall apart.
So, my belief is that a line of defense over there is necessary to protect us here.
Let me turn you to something else, Senator. You have spoken yourself — you came from a modest background. Both of your parents died when you were still in college. You raised your younger sister.
She gives you credit for being her big brother and her father and her mother at the same time. How did that experience shape you?
Yes, it shaped me a lot.
I mean, one day, everything is great. The next day, my life is turned upside down. Most people, Judy, are one car wreck away from needing somebody's help. So, I don't take anything for granted much anymore. Everything was fine. My mom got diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. Six months later, she passes. The medical bills wiped us out.
Fifteen months after that, my dad dies. I'm 22. My sister is 13. Our life is turned upside down. An aunt and uncle helped me raise my sister. They never made over $25,000 in their life.
If it weren't for Social Security survivor benefits coming into my family, to my sister as a minor, we'd have had a hard time paying the bills. Student loans helped my sister go to college. So, I would do almost anything to save Social Security. I'm 59 years old. I'm not married. I don't have any kids, and I'm really doing really well financially.
If I need to give up some benefits, change my COLA, I would to save Social Security.
Well, speaking of that, you know, give us some specifics on that. How high would you raise the retirement age? You have talked about younger workers working longer.
You have talked about raising Social Security premiums, asking people to take a cut. How big a cut?
Well, what I would do is I would take Simpson-Bowles out and dust it off, adjust the age of retirement based on the actuarial needs of the country.
It goes to 67. Ronald Reagan went from — and Tip O'Neill went from 65 to 67. We need to adjust it again because we're living so much longer. Social Security is a system that keeps half of today's seniors out of poverty. And people on my income level are going to have to give up some of their benefits to protect the system, because it's running out of money.
Two other things, Senator. You have taken positions on climate change, on immigration that many Republicans disagree with. You have opponents today who are talking about toughening their position on immigration.
At the same time, you have long advocated a legal path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Are your opponents making a mistake by toughening their position?
In my view, you have got to secure your border or you will never fix this problem. But you're not going to just fix the problem by building a wall. The reason we have 11 million illegal immigrants is they come here to get jobs. They come from poor and corrupt countries, and it's an economic problem. You have got to increase legal immigration, not restrict it.
Eighty million baby boomers are going to die out in the next 20, 30 or 40 years. And who is going to replace us in the work force? We're a declining population. We're down to two workers for every retiree in the next 20 years. We're going to need a viable legal immigration system.
So those people who want to restrict legal immigration are not looking at the demographic.
Finally, Senator, if you were elected president, you would be first bachelor to take office since Grover Cleveland in 1885.
Yes, that's right.
Is that a disadvantage?
And I ask because the role of the spouse of the president has become a very full role.
Serious issues, the first ladies have taken on, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Nancy Reagan.
Would you need someone to fill that role, were you to be elected?
Well, I think we will find a way to accommodate that particular need. But I think America can handle this.
Here's the test for me: What can I do for your family? What can I do to help you and your kids, if you have children? What can I do to keep America safe and to keep us prosperous and secure at home and deal with the retirement of the baby boomers?
I have got no problems. The people of South Carolina have elected me for the last 20 years. And I'm proud. I do have family. I'm not married. I don't have kids, but I do understand family, and I understand how precious family is. So I think America can handle this. But we will see.
Senator Lindsey Graham, we thank you very much for talking with us.
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