June 12, 2013
Yes, President Big Brother has been hurt by the National Security Agency domestic spying scandal.
He once campaigned for the White House as a champion of civil liberties, and now he haplessly defends the NSA's secret data mining of the American people, our cellphones, our email and our thoughts even as we type them.
And while sales figures skyrocket for George Orwell's novel "1984," I'd like to ask you to try an experiment.
Try swimming against the current of common wisdom. It won't hurt, I promise.
Certainly, Obama doesn't benefit from the NSA scandal, especially coming after the other scandals involving Benghazi and the IRS targeting conservatives and libertarians for their political and religious beliefs. But there is one group that has been seriously weakened by the revelations about the NSA:
Not all Republicans, but the establishment GOP, the big-government neoconservative wing that has run the party for decades, framing the debate, playing our fear of terrorism like a musical instrument as its pushes war as policy.
Think of a grinning Karl Rove with Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham on his lap. Those guys. They're the ones hurting.
Because what NSA leaker Edward Snowden has triggered is a debate — I prefer the words "political cage match to the death" — between the neoconservatives on one side and the libertarians and conservatives of the tea party on the other.
The GOP establishment pushed through the Patriot Act under President George W. Bush, using the threat of terror to grow the federal security state into what it's become. And now the establishment is denouncing Snowden as a traitor.
That doesn't sit well with the Republican base.
This animosity undercuts the message that the GOP establishment has been hurling at Obama for months over other issues, namely that unbridled federal power is dangerous.
"The Republican Party goes through this soul-searching at least once in every generation," former Judge Andrew Napolitano said Tuesday on the WLS-AM radio show I co-host with Lauren Cohn. "I'm old enough to remember Barry Goldwater vs. Nelson Rockefeller in the early '60s.
"Now here we are all over again. I don't know whether it's the Chris Christie wing vs. the Rand Paul wing, but it is basically big-government Republican style vs. small-government constitutional style. …The lesson of history is obvious. What do they want to do this time around? Have Democrats Lite in the form of Gov. Christie?
"Or will there be a serious return to small-government transparency and maximum individual liberty under Rand Paul? It's not even a choice at all in light of what the government has done. The IRS, The Associated Press, Fox News, all these violations of civil liberties that seem to be coming down every day."
That debate is necessary for the health of the republic, just as the future ugly debate among Democrats will be necessary. It's coming for the Democrats — not yet, but eventually, when they're in the wilderness like the Republicans are at present.
Right now, the debate is on the right as the 2016 presidential campaign takes shape.
"If you look at polls, you see that in the general public there's been a huge shift," said Julian Sanchez, who studies the intersection of technology and civil liberties for the Cato Institute. "Republicans were overwhelmingly fine with this under Bush and are a lot more disturbed by it now. And we've seen the reverse among self-identified Democrats. A majority used to oppose this and now a thin majority are basically OK with fairly invasive and, frankly, incredibly sweeping forms of surveillance."
Sanchez noted that U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., is now vehemently anti-NSA.
"One of the most astonishing things to me has been seeing Jim Sensenbrenner, who proudly describes himself as the author of the Patriot Act, essentially condemning this bulk acquisition of Internet records and slightly fuzzier PRISM program as an abuse that goes far beyond what he thought he was establishing in the Patriot Act," Sanchez said.
The voices of common Washington consensus, meaning the establishment bipartisan political class, keeps stressing that what the NSA is doing is legal. This argument misses the political point, but it fills airtime.
"Yes, it is legal," said Napolitano of the NSA spying. "Yes, it is legal. And it was enacted by the Congress, but it is profoundly unconstitutional.
"These laws undermine the very reason the Constitution was written, one of which is to guarantee the freedom to exercise your natural rights, among which is the right to be left alone. The laws directly contradict the core American value, the core value that Jefferson wrote in the declaration, that our rights come from our humanity and not the government and so they can't be taken away by a vote of the government."
But will the public recognize this and remember it as the spinners begin whispering about common sense and protection and security?
"They can capture emails of your friends, your children, your spouse, your local librarian and anybody," Napolitano said. "What kind of society wants the government peering over its shoulder all the time? That's East Germany and Stalin Russia. That's not the United States of America."
And that's a difference the establishment GOP had better figure out soon. If it doesn't, it will follow the Whigs into oblivion.
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