It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and I was racing toward Baltimore’s BWI airport, full of foreboding. I’d seen a week of stories on Fox News and the Drudge Report about TSA workers’ groping innocent passengers — spilling their urostomy bags, touching their junk, stripping the shirts off twelve-year-olds, and reducing women to tears.
To express outrage at these excesses, privacy campaigners on the left and the right had designated Wednesday National Opt-Out Day. Americans sick of government intrusions would refuse to be scanned by the new body imagers, opting instead for the even more intrusive new pat-downs. On one of the busiest travel days of the year, ordinary people would face massive delays as passenger after passenger insisted on being groped in public. It would be a debacle for the TSA, and the outcry would put an end to body scans and enhanced pat-downs. Or so the campaigners hoped.
Arriving two-and-a-half hours early, I rushed to the security checkpoint. The line was all of five minutes long. No one was opting out. I don’t know who was more polite, the TSA officers or the passengers.
With all that time to kill, I decided to take the enhanced pat-down myself. A bearded officer with the trademark green polymer gloves explained the process: He would check inside my collar, around my arms and chest, inside my belt, and then up my legs “to the point where they join,” as he delicately put it. And that’s exactly what he did. He ran his hand, flat and rigid, up each leg until it met resistance.
“That’s it?” I thought. I’ve had experiences that were about as intimate getting a pair of pants fitted. As a symbol of National Opt-Out Day, it was perfect. There hadn’t been a bigger bust since Michael Jordan turned to baseball. After all the hype from Fox and Drudge and the libertarian blogosphere, the American public shrugged its shoulders and went about its business.
I think there’s a lesson there for conservatives. Two, actually.
The first is pretty simple: While sincere and consistent civil libertarians exist, politicians are always most tempted to play the civil-liberties card when their party doesn’t hold the White House. We saw that in the late 1990s, when the Clinton administration’s centrist support for law enforcement drove congressional conservatives into the arms of civil libertarians (think Bill Barr, or Dick Armey). Congressional Democrats used the same weapon to attack the Bush administration after 2004. The guys who are out of power always have a keen appreciation for the ways in which power can be abused.
After one’s party is elected, things look different, and neither party has followed through on its civil-liberties rhetoric after taking office. Even President Obama, who probably believed the civil-liberties critique more deeply than any past presidential candidate, has ended up embracing most of the security measures he ran against.
You can see the appeal of the civil-liberties market niche to the Right. A civil-liberties stance is consistent with small-government conservatism. And it can get conservative groups great publicity, perhaps even a strange new respect from media outlets on the left. It embarrasses the current administration.