Georgia’s Democratic Senator Max Cleland went into the 2002 election season with a 22-point lead on his Republican opponent, Saxby Chambliss. Cleland was a Vietnam vet who lost three limbs at the battle of Khe San, yet Chambliss attacked him for “breaking his oath to protect and defend the Constitution” by opposing the Patriot Act. After months of brazen attacks on Cleland’s patriotism and ads subtly connecting him to Bin Laden, Chambliss won the race.
In the decade after 9/11 it has been nearly impossible for a major political figure to question the relentless expansion of the security state without the risk of being Chamblissed. Now, the strange politics of the Snowden Affair could mark a long-overdue shift in political alignments on national security issues. It might be possible, at last, to build cross-partisan support for a re-evaluation of America’s permanent war.
Edward Snowden’s disclosures of NSA record-collection on domestic phone records should not have been shocking to anyone. Though the details were secret, nothing Snowden revealed is illegal and the details of the program had been disclosed to Congress. Yet, several things have changed in the past few years to give Snowden’s revelations more impact than they might have had in the past.
Bin Laden is dead. The Iraq War is over and the Afghan War is winding down. The public is slowly beginning to adapt to the realities of global terrorism, recognizing that it poses no existential or political threat to the country. There may be a significant slice of the electorate across party lines that are prepared to place terrorism in a more realistic perspective and press for a rebalancing of anti-terror measures in favor of greater civil liberties.
Unfortunately, an evolving public maturity is probably not the main reason that the Snowden leak is inspiring cross-partisan scrutiny of the security state. Through the Bush years, Ron Paul was almost entirely alone on the right in questioning anti-terrorism measures. However, since a new President put the black in black helicopters, a faction on the far right has discovered a passionate new interest in civil liberties – at least up to a point.
A new crop of Republicans, including Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, are expressing tentative support for Snowden over the vociferous objections of more traditional conservatives. Whatever the basis, the bare fact of some reticence on the right may finally provide enough oxygen for some credible dissent to survive and reach into mainstream politics in both parties.
For the past decade, Republicans have been a powerful block of support for ever more extreme measures in protection of national security. However in the wake of the Snowden revelations, a solid majority of Republicans are expressing objections to the NSA program. Republicans still object to other proposals by the Obama Administration to scale back Bush-era anti-terrorism efforts, but any potential opening for new thinking on the subject should be welcome.
Snowden himself makes a pretty dubious hero. The activities he disclosed are all legal. By immediately fleeing into the arms of dictatorial regimes, he has displayed a naiveté that undermines his credibility. Letting Snowden become a poster child for efforts to rein in the growth of the security state would be a serious political mistake. If this matter is going to represent a political turning point then advocates for civil liberties on both sides of the partisan divide will have to harness the discomfort inspired by these revelations while keeping their distance from Snowden.
In the meantime, the good Senator from Georgia is determined that he will never be Chamblissed himself. Senator Saxby Chambliss has implied that Snowden is a traitor who “put American lives in danger” He is pressing for the vigorous pursuit and prosecution of the leaker. Chambliss, like most major figures in both parties, is sticking by the unquestioned support of the security state that has been a safe position for over a decade.
Snowden’s revelations by themselves are not potent enough to change our politics, but they offer an opening for civil libertarians to propose alternatives. If the liberty lobby in both parties can avoid being burdened by Snowden himself, the country may find opportunities in this incident to build a new consensus on terrorism that ends the unquestioned, permanent expansion of the security state.
Chris Ladd is a Texan who is now living in the Chicago area. He is the founder of Building a Better GOP and has served for several years as a Republican Precinct Committeeman in DuPage County, IL, and was active in state and local Republican campaigns in Texas for many years. (Email: chrladd AT gmail DOT com)