Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), a contender for the 2016 Republican nomination, may have crossed a line that will be difficult to un-cross when he declared from the Senate floor on Sunday night, “People here in town think I’m making a huge mistake. Some of them, I think, secretly want there to be an attack on the United States, so they can blame it on me.”
In fairness to Paul, as The Hill notes, he said a reporter had essentially field-tested that line of attack against him recently, by asking if he would “feel guilty” if a successful terrorist attack followed his crusade against government surveillance programs.
“The people who attack us are responsible for attacks on us,” was Senator Paul’s response to that line of thinking. “So the ones who say, when an attack occurs, it’s going to be all your fault, are any of them willing to accept the blame? We have bulk collection now, are any of them willing to accept the blame for the Boston bombing?”
If Paul was truly rattled enough by a single reporter asking that question to unload the blanket allegation he delivered from the Senate floor on Sunday night, it will add fuel to the argument made by critics of his 2016 presidential effort that his buttons are too easy to push.
Good points can be obscured by poorly-chosen words. Unfortunately, Paul has already antagonized what he views as the “hawk” wing of the GOP by accusing it of helping to create ISIS, in concert with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Those who bristled over those words are now going to think Paul is accusing them of desiring a successful terrorist atrocity on U.S. soil, just so they can say “I told you so.”
If he’s trying to position himself as a candidate with appeal to both the libertarian Right and classically liberal Left, he’s going to run into several problems… chief among them the near-total dissolution of the classically liberal Left. Most of the grousing about the Surveillance State from the Left is just stale Bush hatred, the echoes of an incoherent frenzy Democrats whipped their supporters into for the better part of a decade.
The Left is currently musing, out loud, that the First Amendment has outlived its usefulness. Democrats will spend the primary season applauding as Hillary Clinton and her nominal primary opponents compete to be the candidate who can make the government biggest, and fastest. There is no deep “distrust of government” nerve in the Democrat Party that can be tapped to woo young left-leaning voters over to Rand Paul’s cause. There might be a bit of superficial unease – just enough to register in polls, because it’s hip to say you’re worried about metadata collection – but mostly “distrust of government” is a partisan affair for liberals, and Rand Paul belongs to the wrong party.
He’s been good at using his objection to the Digital Panopticon as a conversation-starter with persuadable young people, but some of his recent comments train too much heavy fire upon his own party, giving Democrats some useful sound bites to chew over. Blowing your own side to smithereens with verbal artillery while attempting to break the ice with approachable Democrats is not a sound election strategy.
This might also be a less than optimal moment to run the sort of liberty-over-security campaign Paul wants to run, with public concerns about terrorism running high, and our security apparatus looking nervous in a chillingly authentic, unforced way. It would be absurd to blame Paul’s battle against the Patriot Act for any terrorist act that might occur between now and Election Day – which is not to say that some people wouldn’t do it, for we live in absurd times – but it’s entirely predictable that voters’ sense of the balance between liberty and security tips toward the latter under such circumstances. (The Senator is quite right to warn people not to give too much away to Big Government when they’re frightened, but this is a case best made with more delicate language than he used on Sunday.)
Paul skipped a conference meeting with fellow Senate Republicans on Sunday, as he dug in his heels against the Patriot Act, adding to the perception that he’s at war with his Republican colleagues as much as he is with the Democrats.
The feeling is apparently mutual. Several GOP senators were furious at him for skipping the Sunday conference meeting. “Anything that goes against anything he believes, he never comes,” said Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, as quoted by Politico. “It’s always helpful if you’re in there working to have your position understood, and we all learn a lot and we all try to come to a much better understanding of what we’re trying to do.”
Paul was probably correct to judge that the atmosphere at the meeting would not have been “cordial” toward him, as Politico cites eyewitnesses who claim Coats accused Paul of “lying” about the PATRIOT Act to raise money for his presidential campaign.
Senator John McCain went even further, accusing Paul of jeopardizing national security to score political points: “He obviously has a higher priority for his fundraising and political ambitions than for the security of the nation.”
Paul would doubtless shrug off such comments from uber-hawks like McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) – whose own quixotic presidential bid, formally announced on Monday, seems primarily intended to scuttle Paul’s effort. Primary campaigns are a natural moment – perhaps the only real opportunity – for candidates with strong, unorthodox views to shift their party’s thinking.
Unfortunately, Paul is winning some points on the merits while losing more on style. A good deal of what he says about NSA data collection is objectively correct – the Obama Administration has flat-out lied about these programs several times, and as many critics have noted online today, it’s highly unlikely those data-collection programs came to a screeching halt when their nominal legal authorization expired last night. There is a way to use public unease about the Surveillance State as part of a larger critique of untrustworthy government, and it’s a timely argument given how often the Leviathan State has betrayed our trust and/or fallen flat on its face lately.
Paul seems to be working to rub a bit of the sharp edge off his comments today, appearing on Glenn Beck’s radio show to emphasize that only ISIS is truly to blame for the existence of ISIS, and stressing that he wants protection for the privacy rights of the innocent, not the wholesale eradication of our domestic intelligence apparatus.
It may be premature to say he “just sacrificed his presidential campaign for his libertarian principles,” as Peter Weber argues at The Week. But he’s planted his flag on some difficult ground, and quite frankly, successful presidential candidates don’t throw themselves into heavy intra-party fire and sustain major political wounds to prove ideological points. Perhaps he would do well to reconstruct his argument to emphasize the libertarian points where more of the Republican Party agrees with him, and more of the ever-shifting middle of the American electorate would be willing to listen.