The debate in Washington about the Patriot Act, privacy, and the bulk collection of user data is notable for a number of political factors that will play out over the course of the 2016 Republican primary and beyond. It actually says more about people other than Rand Paul than it does about the good senator: it was perhaps the most avoidable screw up on the part of Mitch McConnell in quite a long time; it represents an actual libertarian rebellion against leadership in both parties on Capitol Hill (as opposed to things that just sound libertarian in one way or another); and it was an indication of how critical Mike Lee’s leadership is to charting the path forward if the GOP is to discover a new fusionism to unite its coalition.
But first, for Paul: his best ability as a Senator in his short tenure has been his ability to pick the right fights and avoid ones that did not suit his priorities. This has led him into surprising alliances with leadership in more than one instance. But that doesn’t mean he’s lost his tendency to chart his own direction where his priorities are different. For Republican security hawks frustrated by Paul, they ought to look to McConnell instead; you have to wonder if the leader was distracted too much by the TPP fight or lulled into some sense that Paul wasn’t Paul any more. Either way, in the closing hours of this argument McConnell was once again setting up a false choice between either extending the programs as-is or ending them completely, as if Lee and others hadn’t been teeing up the USA Freedom Act as a compromise measure for weeks. If you really believe that this whole thing puts America at risk, it’s McConnell who you ought to be angry at for failing to deal with such a predictable battle.
As a political matter, Paul made his point, re-established his ownership of this domestic spying issue, and will concede to a bill that mends instead of ends this program. Jonathan Tobin pronounces that due to this, “Paul’s long and arduous effort to attain the status of a mainstream Republican leader and presidential contender is now officially over.” And before it even began! At least we can skip writing about it now and focus on the 20 other candidates.
Yes, owning the issue of privacy and the right to be left alone is unlikely to put Paul in the mainstream of the GOP – it scores better with Independent voters than Iowans, after all. Paul’s point all along has been that this degree of collection is unnecessary and overly invasive, and on that the American people seem to agree with him. (Ron Wyden has actually been making the more significant point, which is that the federal government’s push for the requirement of back doors for law enforcement’s own use is putting all of us at risk, but a fight on that will come later.) Whether that means they will put a priority on this agreement is a different question. Polls on this issue often reveal agreement, but rarely reveal it as a priority for voters. Part of Paul’s campaign is a test to see what resonates, but part of it is just making those issues more present in the minds of Republicans, regardless of his chances at the nomination.
As for the Republican Party: The underlying clash between Lee – arguing for a measure that had 338 votes in the House for it, but does not satisfy Tom Cotton – is a sign that these disputes are renewing with a new generation of Senators, and will be around for a long time to come. Navigating national security issues in the post-Obama, post-Snowden arena is going to be more complicated than ever. The short-term problem for Republican presidential candidates who will emerge to make the case for the level of access and privacy invasion they believe necessary is that they are effectively battling against even modest reforms, supported by plenty of members of Congress, while simultaneously counting on a high degree of trust in the Obama Administration’s effectiveness. Trusting this administration to do their jobs effectively and without trampling on rights and the Constitution along the way has been a risky choice in the past. We’ll see whether the natsec hawks’ faith is rewarded.