Politics & Policy

In Philadelphia, Paul Doubles Down on Anti-NSA Message

(Scott Olson/Getty)

Philadelphia — As fans of Senator Rand Paul waited for their hero take the stage here this morning, one of Paul’s opening acts had a slip of the tongue.

“Are you not thrilled to meet candidate for president, Ron — excuse me, Rand Paul?” the speaker asked.

A minor gaffe, but just the kind of confusion that Paul’s Republican rivals hope takes place in the minds of voters whenever the Kentucky Republican discusses foreign policy. On stage inside the Constitution Center, home of one of the original twelve copies of the Bill of Rights, Paul adopted a softer tone than his father in discussing the National Security Agency.

“I’m for them going and doing their business in a Fourth Amendment-consistent fashion,” he said.

RELATED: Republicans and the Patriot Act

Two years ago, Paul famously staked his claim to leadership of the Republican party during another fight pertaining to the Fourth Amendment, when he staged a 13-hour filibuster in opposition to President Obama’s drone program. Since then, however, the rise of ISIS and other national security threats has complicated the politics of Paul’s less hawkish foreign-policy positions. But rather than attenuate his views in the face of this potential political headwind, Paul has heightened his opposition to Obama’s national-security policies, attempting to use his foreign-policy heterodoxies to forge a link between his libertarian base and the African-American Democrats he hopes to attract in a general election.

“If I were the nominee, we will compete in Philadelphia,” he said.

Paul’s Republican opponents expect national-security fights to deep-six his presidential hopes, just as they stymied the candidacy of his father. At about the same time that Paul stood before Independence Hall and demanded that President Obama suspend the program, Governor Chris Christie (R., N.J.) was deriding the “civil-liberties extremists” who were emboldened by the Snowden leaks.

RELATED: NSA Data Collection: Necessary, or Unconstitutional

“They want you to think of our intelligence community as the bad guys, straight out of ‘The Bourne Identity,’” Christie said in New Hampshire. “All these fears are baloney. When it comes to fighting terrorism, our government is not the enemy.”

Paul emphasized his approval of most law-enforcement officials repeatedly, but recalled that the drafters of the Constitution expected the federal government to try to accumulate power, and so developed a system of three branches of government that would compete with each other. In keeping with his outreach to the black community, Paul referred to civil-rights abuses committed by racist officers as he explained why the NSA should not be able to obtain what he calls “a general warrant” to review the phone records of all Verizon customers.

Most Republican leaders still favor a more robust NSA program than Paul supports.

“There was a time in parts of our country where, maybe it was a white police officer and they said black men are guilty, so we’re just going to enter into the houses of black men until we find one we think committed a crime,” Paul said. “Some of that happened in our country and so that’s why you call the judge, to prevent bias from entering into it, but you also individualize the warrant.”

Paul knows he can’t stop the reauthorization of the NSA program, but he plans to drag out a Senate debate this week for as long as possible in order to heighten public opposition to the program while lawsuits work through the courts.

“I call for the president to obey the law,” Paul said during a press conference on the mall in front of Independence Hall, where the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were adopted. “The court said last week that it is illegal to collect all of your phone records all of the time without a warrant with your name on it. I call on the president today to immediately end the bulk collection of our phone records.”

The foreign policy views of the Republican party have moved toward Paul, relative to where they stood in the heyday of the George W. Bush administration, but most Republican leaders still favor a more robust NSA program than Paul supports. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) wants to reauthorize the program in its current form, but even the USA Freedom Act backed by tea-party stalwart Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) is too aggressive for Paul’s taste.

Paul said that he worries that the bill will provide the legal footing needed for the NSA program to continue.

“The court has now ruled that the Patriot Act is not sanctioned or [does not] give approval to the bulk collection of records,” he said during the Independence Hall press conference. “My fear is that the USA Freedom Act, even in transferring that power from the government to phone companies, actually expands the power of government.”

#related#Paul’s views on such issues will draw plenty of Republican fire over the next eighteen months, even from critics outside the presidential contest. “The more people learn about his foreign-policy views, the more his support will decline,” John Bolton, a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, predicted last week. “His principles seem to be in conflict with his ambition.”

The libertarian-leaning senator insisted that’s not the case. “The public is light years in front of Washington,” he said at the Constitution Center. “If you ask them about, should the government collect your phone records without a warrant with your name on it, should we have bulk collection of every American’s phone records? I think it’s probably 60 percent of Republicans — it’s probably 60 to 70 percent of the general public — say no.”

If he’s right, Paul might have a potent message. If he’s wrong, or events abroad continue to deteriorate, voters might conclude that they don’t want Ron Paul in the White House — or Rand Paul, either.

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.

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