Republican presidential candidates Sen. Rand Paul, R.-Ky., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. (Photo: AP)
The GOP’s ideological divide on national security was on full display in the Senate on Wednesday, as two prospective Republican presidential candidates — and one former candidate — aired their grievances against the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy and surveillance.
And though there’s not much substantive overlap between the worldviews of Republican Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, their dueling floor speeches previewed a potential dynamic of the 2016 presidential primary season. Republicans agree that Americans should be afraid, they just disagree over what they believe Americans should be fearful of.
For establishment Republicans like Graham, or his friend and former GOP presidential nominee John McCain of Arizona, who joined him on the Senate floor, the biggest threat to Americans is a reduced military engagement in Middle Eastern countries like Iraq and Syria, which have become breeding grounds for extremist groups like the Islamic State, also known as ISIL.
For Paul, a libertarian, the infringement of civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism looms over U.S. citizens, casting the government as an intrusive Orwellian Big Brother. Paul has built a brief Senate career and now a burgeoning presidential campaign in large part on his advocacy for civil liberties and opposition to government surveillance. He took to the floor Wednesday for what was expected to be a filibuster lasting hours, and perhaps a day, against congressional extension of controversial surveillance provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which expires at the end of this month.
The two sides, pushing their divergent policy priorities, posit existential threats to the nation, as reflected in the tone of their rhetoric Wednesday. The speeches also reflected a divided Republican candidate class, struggling with the questions of whether the United States should have invaded Iraq in 2003, what America’s current approach to the region should be and whether the Patriot Act’s surveillance measures are an appropriate and effective way to prevent terrorism.
Prospective voters who were directed to C-SPAN by fundraising emails, tweets and Facebook posts from Paul’s presidential campaign heard dire warnings from the candidate about the future of privacy.
“Maybe it isn’t tomorrow that we decide that we’re going to round up all the Japanese-Americans again and put them in internment camps, but maybe next time, it’s Arab-Americans,” Paul said, referring to the World War II executive order that detained thousands of American residents, including citizens, of Japanese descent. “We need to be concerned with this, because you don’t know who the next group is that’s unpopular.”
“There is a danger that you’ll have no privacy at the end of this,” Paul added, hitting his oft-repeated theme that Americans’ rights are endangered by the continued policy on surveillance.
Had those same Paul supporters tuned in to the Senate floor just two hours earlier, however, they would have heard very different doomsday warnings from McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, and from Graham, who is scheduled to launch his 2016 presidential bid in June.
Both McCain and Graham support the extension of current law on the Patriot Act. While this position is in line with Senate GOP leaders, it is at odds with that of large bipartisan coalitions in both the Senate and the House, which have already approved the USA Freedom Act, reforming the program. Their priorities are the same as those that Republicans have had for decades: confronting foreign threats from hostile governments and terrorist groups.
“We should understand that the direct threat to the homeland is growing by the day. If you want to be indifferent to what’s going on in Iraq, and say, ‘People are dying all over the world, there’s no reason for us to care and get involved because we can’t be everywhere all the time doing everything for everybody,’ I would suggest to you that ISIL in Syria and Iraq represents a growing threat to our homeland,” Graham said, advocating for “thousands” more U.S. troops in the region.
Without a change in policy and an increase in the U.S. military presence, Graham warned, “All of the friends of the United States and people who could live in peace with Israel, they fall. And in their place becomes the most radical Islamic regime in the history of the world, who will destroy Israel if they can: Purify their religion, destroy Israel, come after us. President Obama, President Bush made mistakes. He adjusted. You’re not.”
Of course, engaging militarily in Iraq and Syria versus reforming or eliminating laws that facilitate bulk surveillance of Americans are not mutually exclusive. But they do present two distinct approaches to foreign policy in the growing GOP presidential field.
Yahoo News reported earlier this week on the divisions between Republicans on surveillance, but the other foreign policy debate is complicated by the fact that a promise to get out of Iraq was a foundational part of the 2008 election. In the Democratic primary that year, advocating for that position helped Obama topple Hillary Clinton, then a senator, and now a presidential candidate again. Obama, who opposed the war, then defeated McCain, who supported it. Now, how the United States should handle policy in Iraq is becoming a significant issue in the 2016 campaign.
In tone, Paul and Graham are not alone in their doomsday rhetoric. It was just two months ago, at a New Hampshire campaign event, that a third Senate Republican seeking the White House, Ted Cruz of Texas, made a little girl cry by forcefully declaring, “Your world is on fire,” in reference to the “failed Obama-Clinton foreign policy.”
And Yahoo News previously reported on how prospective candidates like Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin have used scare rhetoric to gin up support for their economic agendas.
In his floor speech on Wednesday, Paul tried to convey why national security should not be used as justification for violating the privacy rights of American citizens. He looked directly into the C-SPAN camera, and said bluntly, “We have to decide whether our fear is going to get the best of us.”
For the politician whose campaign website sells “NSA Spy Cam Blockers,” to block any surveillance on citizens by the National Security Agency, it’s a good question.