Senator Rand Paul was exultant yesterday when a federal appeals court ruled the Patriot Act didn’t authorize the National Security Agency’s collection of phone records. The decision is a victory for both the libertarian extremist wing of the Republican Party as well as the far left that has cheered, as Paul has done, the massive betrayal of official secrets by Edward Snowden. The decision, which will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, was made on a legalistic point about the language of the Patriot Act rather than a more sweeping one that could have decried the metadata collection as an infringement of the constitutional rights of citizens whose records have been collected. But the verdict certainly bolsters Paul’s view that the government overstepped its authority. However, if the senator thinks this will give his presidential candidacy a much-needed shot in the arm, he’s probably mistaken. Coming as it did after a failed attack in Texas and in the wake of the rise of a terror threat from ISIS that may be as potent as that of al Qaeda, aligning himself with Bernie Sanders on national security issues is not going to be winning formula in GOP primaries for Paul.
Paul still believes he has tapped into a vast reservoir of voter suspicion of government among conservatives. He’s right in the sense that President Obama’s policies and other administration hijinks such as the IRS scandal have inspired more cynicism on the right about big government. Seen from that perspective, the ruling not only vindicates Paul’s views about the way the intelligence community gathers information about terrorism but it might also make him seem less like the fringe candidate that his father was and more like a potential national leader. But the problem for Paul is that, the court decision notwithstanding, the isolationist moment in American politics is over.
In 2013, the terrorist threat that animated so much of the conversation about foreign policy and security since 9/11 seemed to be very much in the country’s rear view mirror. Many believed President Obama’s talk about Osama bin Laden’s death heralding the end of al Qaeda. And many were also prepared to think that much of what the government had done to prevent another mass terror attack on the homeland was either no longer necessary or more a function of a desire by the administration to amass Orwellian powers over the citizenry than to defend them. Not everyone took Paul’s over-the-top rhetoric about drone attacks being used against U.S. citizens sitting in a Starbucks seriously. But since a lot of Republicans were willing to believe Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder capable of all sorts of law breaking — a state of affairs for which administration’s actions rather than the paranoia of the right are responsible — Paul’s star rose.
But if Paul has fallen back into the pack of 2016 hopefuls it’s not only because his brittle personality rubs a lot of voters the wrong way. Two years after his brilliant drone policy filibuster, Paul finds himself swimming upstream in a time of concern about Obama’s foreign policy disasters. Though the hard left in the form of Sanders and the rest of the Edward Snowden fan club still agrees with the senator on scaling back efforts to stop the terrorists, Paul’s legalistic approach to counter terrorism is out of step with the times and the needs of the nation.
More to the point, as our Max Boot pointed out yesterday, the court was flat out wrong about both the need for the metadata collection and about the theoretical threat that it supposedly poses to civil liberties. It is to be hoped the Supreme Court will reverse this decision. But in the meantime, the court ruling puts Paul on the wrong side of a debate in the Senate about the need to reauthorize the Patriot Act. Rather than wrong-footing Paul’s opponents, the court has only made those, like Senator Marco Rubio, who denounced the decision on the floor of the Senate, appear more in touch with the sensibilities of a Republican Party which is still dominated more by those who care about national security than those who fear the government is listening to their phone calls.
After working so hard to appear more like a foreign policy “realist” than a neo-isolationist (or a full-flown isolationist extremist like his father Ron), Paul now finds himself aligned with Bernie Sanders against the mainstream of his party. Instead of helping him, the appeals court has reminded Republicans that the senator really is to the left of Barack Obama on foreign policy. That is the comfort zone for the libertarian shock troops that helped Ron Paul win a number of GOP caucuses in 2012. But it is no way to win the Republican nomination in 2016.
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