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Jun 01 2015

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Rand Paul’s Dangerous Stunt

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Opportunism masquerading as principle...

Opportunism masquerading as principle…

In assessing the qualities one needs in order to be an effective president, none is more important than good judgment.

Both Roosevelts had it. So did haberdasher Harry Truman and Eureka College alumni, Ronald Reagan. JFK’s judgment may have been all that stood between the world we know today and a possible radioactive wasteland that could have resulted from the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Yesterday, in an extraordinary Sunday meeting of the Senate, Senator –  and presidential candidate-  Rand Paul (R-KY)  demonstrated beyond a doubt that he does not possess the judgment to take on the world’s most consequential job.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the Senate back into session to address the expiring authorities for key sections of the Patriot Act, which govern surveillance and intelligence gathering.

The core authority up for renewal  – Section 215 – is controversial since Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations laid bare the breathtakingly expansive interpretation used by the NSA and secret courts with regard to the government’s bulk collection and storage of telephone metadata of Americans accused of no crime. In early May, the Appeals Court for the 2nd Circuit ruled that the government’s interpretation of Section 215 was unconstitutional.

Despite Snowden’s revelations, and more recent legal action, there are staunch supporters of the existing program in Congress and the intelligence community, believing it is vital to national security. Others, including Rand Paul, other Republicans, Democrats and the ACLU,  believe the entire program needs to be scrapped to protect Americans’ 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In May, the House of Representatives, in a rare display of bi-partisan practicality, overwhelmingly approved the USA Freedom Act, which significantly modified, but did not end, metadata collection and storage. New safeguards were added to ensure that NSA searches were focused and limited. Data would now be held by companies, not the government.

The USA Freedom Act isn’t perfect, as anyone who has an opinion on the Section 215 authorities will tell you, but it is a sensible and constructive step that balances ongoing surveillance capability with American foundational liberties.

But it was not good enough for Rand Paul.

With only hours to go before Section 215  and other essential authorities expired in their entirety, and with the USA Freedom Act as the only viable alternative, the Senate voted 77-17 to take up the USA Freedom  Act.  However, Paul announced that he would use Senate procedures to delay consideration of the bill, effectively forcing the expiration of the surveillance provisions at midnight, last night.  The earliest that the bill can be taken up now will be Tuesday. If the Senate amends the bill, before passing it, the House will have to take up the amended Senate version, delaying restoration of essential intelligence capabilities further.

For all the talk of Paul’s devotion to the Constitution, and his “courage” in defending liberty, his actions on Sunday were reckless, representing little more than a narcissistic political stunt played out on an issue with grave consequences to American national security.

It is not as if Paul’s actions will substantially alter the next steps.  With 77 percent of the Senate voting to consider the USA Freedom Act, that bill will eventually be passed. But by grandstanding and refusing to allow “unanimous consent” – dispensing with debate if all Senators agree – Paul has allowed critical surveillance authorities to lapse completely until such time as the Senate concludes its work, or if necessary, returns the bill to the House for their further consideration, with additional delay.

It is nothing short of unilateral intelligence disarmament.

Even more unseemly, Paul used the occasion to fundraise for his presidential bid, even producing a glitzy ad, showing him boxing it out with President Obama.

That’s not the action of a patriot, but of a scoundrel. This isn’t a game. This isn’t posturing. We are talking about protecting American lives.

Politically, Paul has potentially damaged the Republican brand on national security. Since 2001, the American people have turned to the GOP when considering which party can best protect the homeland. With this craven action, Paul has put that ball in play, allowing political opponents to rightly point out that a Republican Congress could not pass an essential homeland defense bill, despite Democratic support.

President Obama has already warned that expiration of the Patriot Act provisions could have serious repercussions on US territorial safety. Even if the national security truth is less alarming, the political benefit here goes to the Democrats who are the beneficiaries of an unforced error, courtesy of Rand Paul.

Worse, Paul’s actions feed a narrative about the GOP. The Party of “no,” willing to default on the debt and shut down the government for unachievable, ideological goals. A party unwilling to seriously address immigration. A congressional conservative base that is maniacally intent on closing down a small agency (the Export Import Bank of the US) which returns money to the Treasury, supports US jobs and helps American companies compete overseas, while turning a blind eye to nearly $1 trillion in tax breaks for favored constituencies.

Paul’s clown-like unseriousness rubs off on the GOP at just the moment that Republicans are trying to shake off the past and put forward a candidate and agenda that is the last best hope of rolling back Obamaism.

The stakes could not possibly be higher, yet Paul defaults to himself.

The rub of it all is that philosophically, I agree with Paul on government surveillance and the 4th amendment.  But there is a time and place for everything. And as a rule, no one should make perfect the enemy of the good.

Paul could have easily cut a deal with Mitch McConnell to allow himself to grandstand for a few hours on Sunday, before he agreed to unanimous consent. Paul could then have voted against the bill, preserving his libertarian bone fides, while showing his seriousness on national security issues, by being a team player.

Instead, Paul used his position for selfish, debasing purposes, and potentially at the risk of American lives.

Someone who is willing to take that risk is unsuited to the unique demands of presidency.

 

 

 

 

 

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