Report

Rand Paul’s NSA Victory Lap Could Be a Short, Costly One

Rand Paul managed to temporarily derail an NSA surveillance program. But it will live to spy another day, and Paul's maneuvering could cost him as he embarks on a 2016 presidential run.

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For years, fierce libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has fought against what he considers the National Security Agency’s overreach into the personal lives of American citizens, arguing the agency’s collection of cell phone and Internet data invades civil liberties.

For now, Paul, who blocked the passage of a bill reauthorizing some NSA authorities, can claim victory. But his win is likely to be short-lived and could prove costly as he eyes the Oval Office in 2016.

On Monday, the Senate once again headed toward a vote on the USA Freedom Act; Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said the legislation could become law as early as Tuesday evening. That means the three authorities that Paul allowed to expire -- including the controversial Section 215 that lets the NSA sweep up tens of millions of Americans' Internet and phone records -- are likely to be back on the books just days after he prevented his colleagues from renewing them.

For years, fierce libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has fought against what he considers the National Security Agency’s overreach into the personal lives of American citizens, arguing the agency’s collection of cell phone and Internet data invades civil liberties.

For now, Paul, who blocked the passage of a bill reauthorizing some NSA authorities, can claim victory. But his win is likely to be short-lived and could prove costly as he eyes the Oval Office in 2016.

On Monday, the Senate once again headed toward a vote on the USA Freedom Act; Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said the legislation could become law as early as Tuesday evening. That means the three authorities that Paul allowed to expire — including the controversial Section 215 that lets the NSA sweep up tens of millions of Americans’ Internet and phone records — are likely to be back on the books just days after he prevented his colleagues from renewing them.

If the legislation passes, the data now will be held by a third party, not the government.

Still, the delay is a symbolic victory for Paul, who admitted late Sunday his quest to kill the NSA authorities is ultimately a quixotic one. It marks the second time he has used legislative procedures to draw attention to his outside-the-GOP-mainstream policies without affecting actual change. Paul launched a 13-hour filibuster on March 6 to protest U.S drone policy, and his antics did nothing to alter how the United States uses unmanned planes. But it did get the attention of the public and the media, just like his doomed quest to take on the NSA.

As he positions himself as a maverick presidential contender, Paul must ponder the wisdom of taking high-profile stances that hew to his libertarian views and help him with his base. Doing so, however, could alienate mainstream Republicans whose support he needs for a serious shot at the GOP nomination — even if it means embracing politics as usual and sitting out fights he has no chance of winning.

His actions already have alienated him from Republican stalwarts like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who argue that NSA surveillance is needed to keep the country safe from terrorists. On Monday, in his own 2016 bid announcement, Graham singled out Paul by blasting the Kentucky upstart’s past support of isolationist foreign policy.

GOP strategist John Feehery said Graham’s “entire purpose is to attack Rand Paul” for inadequately confronting threats to America.

“Everyone wants to attack him. He’s kind of stuck out like a sore thumb,” said Feehery, a longtime Capitol Hill spokesman who is now president of Quinn Gillespie Communications.

Paul’s spokesman referred FP to comments made by the senator Monday. On Fox News, Paul dismissed his critics as “Beltway pundits.”

“I think the American people are actually with me,” he said.

Polling data shows this partly to be true, at least among Republicans, and it helps to illustrate the challenge that lies ahead. A 2013 Pew study found 61 percent of Tea Party Republicans believe the Edward Snowden leaks, which led to the two-year debate over the NSA’s reach, served the public interest, as opposed to 30 percent of other members of the GOP.

Now, Paul must convince Republicans of all stripes that his unique and sometimes inconsistent brand of foreign policy is right for a country that is fighting the Islamic State and other global extremist groups, as well as conducting delicate nuclear negotiations with Iran.

“The voters are sick and tired of insiders in Washington, both Republicans and Democrats, making bad decisions for them,” Brian Darling, Paul’s former communications director, said Monday.

“It is a good strategy for Senator Paul to differentiate himself from unpopular party leaders and to show that he has a streak of independence,” Darling said.

Winning over both the party and the public could prove especially difficult, given Paul has straddled the fence between the GOP line and policies more popular with libertarians. He has long fought the notion that he’s an isolationist but has been hard to pin down on a host of issues, including:

The Islamic State and Syria: In 2013, Paul opposed President Barack Obama’s request to attack Syria after chemical weapons were discovered there. Some libertarians turned on Paul when he announced his support for the campaign against the Islamic State in 2014.

Israel: A 2011 budget authored by Paul eliminated U.S. foreign assistance to Israel. Last year, he denied he made the proposal.

Iran: In 2007, Paul said Iran posed no nuclear threat. During nuclear negotiations earlier this year, Paul, who signed Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) infamous letter undercutting the deal, said the agreement isn’t strong enough to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

Immigration: In 2013, Paul said he supported a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. His campaign website now says he opposes amnesty.

Paul also must distance himself from his father, Ron Paul, whose controversial foreign policy record casts a shadow over his son’s worldview. The elder Paul is a strict isolationist who has faced charges of anti-Semitism, and in 2011 described the United States as “an empire by any definition, and quite possibly the most aggressive, extended, and expansionist in the history of the world.”

That’s a worldview that doesn’t resonate with many mainstream Republicans, but it’s also one that will draw votes for Rand Paul in Iowa, where his father commanded a surprisingly strong showing in the 2012 caucuses.

“To succeed, he needs to hold on to the Ron Paul 2012 core vote,” Steve Grubbs, who is advising the Rand Paul campaign in Iowa, told FP Monday. Civil liberty issues, in particular, are “clearly important to that block of voters.”

But Grubbs maintains the younger Paul has a more nuanced view of the world than this father, and that his policies have been consistent over time.

“Senator Paul believes the United States can only engage internationally when our vital interests are at stake,” Grubbs said. “That appeals to Iowans who traditionally have never been big military interventionists.”

Feehery said Paul’s emerging populist strategy would be hard to execute as more traditional candidates like Graham enter the crowded GOP field — even if the Kentuckian is drawing the ire of White House officials for blocking the USA Freedom Act.

Paul’s decision to stand in the way of the inevitable “seems kind of childish,” Feehery said.

Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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