Are post-9/11 politics shifting?

Story highlights

The debate over a key NSA program marks a shift in post-9/11 politics

Paul: "People here in town think I am making a huge mistake"

Washington CNN  — 

Rand Paul has made his point: the sands are shifting in Washington’s perennial debate over the balance between national security and privacy.

In the post-9/11 era, the Kentucky senator’s battle over ending the NSA’s phone data collection program would typically set off a familiar convulsion with critics of the national security state facing accusations that they are willing to forgo America’s safety. But while opponents are flinging such charges Paul’s way, they are finding that simply branding him as weak on keeping America safe is not a sufficient response to the changing politics on the issue.

The fact that Paul, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, is scoring political points and forcing other 2016 contenders to respond to his gamble is a sign of the evolution in the public consensus on the government’s sweeping anti-terrorism methods. That there’s a debate at all over the NSA tactics exposed by fugitive intelligence contractor Edward Snowden suggests it’s no longer taboo for ambitious politicians to question central assumptions of the war on terror.

Some experts believe the passage of time – 13 years without another attack on the U.S. homeland – has offered the political space for questions to build.

‘More complacent’

“I do have the sense that because the government has gotten reasonably good at playing defense since 9/11 (and) the prevention of attacks has been successful, … the public is more complacent than it was closer to 2001,” said Kori Schake, a former National Security Council aide in the George W. Bush administration who is now at the Hoover Institution.

Americans still back the renewal of the program – by a figure of 61% – that expired early Monday morning. But opinion surveys also reveal that younger, Internet-savvy voters who came of age after Sept. 11 are much less likely to back the wide-ranging government data programs that spy agencies insist are vital to cracking down on terrorists.

READ: Poll: 6 in 10 back renewal of NSA data collection

So far, despite the momentum claimed by Paul in his effort to obstruct renewal of the NSA authorities, the national security establishment seems to have the upper hand.

That may reflect the fact that while memories of the Sept. 11 attacks have receded, the rise of ISIS, with its beheadings of American hostages and its recruitment success on U.S. soil, has kept concerns about national security at the forefront of voters’ minds.

The Senate restored the U.S. eavesdropping agencies’ power to access millions of pieces of phone record data on Thursday. Still, Paul is claiming that his marathon speeches and Senate delaying tactics represent a victory in a longer fight against a program he sees as a flagrant overreach of government authority and an abuse of the Constitution.

And his belief that there is political capital to be gained in the debate is reflected by the fact that his filibuster-style effort on the Senate floor this month was joined by another Republican presidential candidate, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, even though the latter does not share his colleague’s opposition to the refashioned program the Senate is being asked to pass.

‘Huge mistake’

“People here in town think I am making a huge mistake,” Paul said on the Senate floor during a rare Sunday session in which fellow Republicans unsuccessfully tried to maneuver around him to get a last-minute deal. “Some of them, I think, secretly, want there to be an attack on the United States so they can blame it on me,” said Paul, cranking up the inflammatory rhetoric on the Senate floor on Sunday.

Paul, in keeping with his libertarian roots, has long warned that the government overreached in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. But his effort also has obvious political overtones.

The Kentucky senator, also a vehement critic of the Obama and Bush administration drone programs, is using the NSA row as a way to distinguish himself in a crowded Republican field.

READ: Rand Paul: The GOP’s punching bag

Cruz’s entry into the debate meanwhile is an apparent sign that he, too, believes there is political gain in questioning the anti-terror activities of a powerful government in the Republican primary — in contrast with previous election cycles.

Paul’s gambit helps him solidify his base of libertarian and young voters who might not necessarily otherwise vote in a Republican primary. But other primary rivals wooing the hawkish GOP base think Paul – and Cruz to an extent – are making a tactical mistake given how the terror threat still resonates with Americans.

“This is probably the most dangerous time for Americans here since September 11th. To now have this void where the NSA cannot track lone wolves, they cannot use roving wiretaps against people they understand, probably are looking to engage in terrorist acts, is completely wrong,” said former New York Gov. George Pataki, who is also seeking the Republican presidential nomination.

“It’s dangerous and I fear for our safety,” Pataki, who was governor of the Empire State on 9/11, told CNN on Monday.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a prospective top-tier GOP presidential candidate, took a veiled swipe at Paul when asked about by CNN about the NSA showdown in New Hampshire on Friday night.

“I think in the end we need to get beyond politics and start talking about national security and do things that are in the best interest – not polling or fundraising – but ultimately do things that are in the best interest of the American people,” Walker said.

Critics

Other Paul critics argue that the febrile state of the Middle East, the rise of ISIS and the threat of other extremists, make the NSA phone data programs more crucial than ever before.

“We shouldn’t be disarming unilaterally, as our enemies grow more sophisticated and aggressive,” said Sen. Republican Majority leader Mitch McConnell, a day before a new CNN/ORC poll found that 61% of Americans think the fight against ISIS is going badly.

READ: Rand Paul video violated Senate rules

Other long-shot Republican 2016 hopefuls clearly believe that failure of a U.S. strategy to contain ISIS, and related national security questions like the NSA flap, offers them a space to run in the presidential primary.

“Radical Islam is running wild,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham as he announced his presidential quest on Monday. “I’m afraid some Americans have grown tired of fighting them. I have some bad news to share with you. The radical Islamists are not tired of fighting you.”

The CNN/ORC poll released on Monday found solid reasoning for both Paul and his Republican foes to keep driving national security issues.

Some 61% of Americans believe that the law enabling bulk collection of the public’s telephone calls should be renewed, with only 36% opposed. And 73% of Republicans believe the law should be extended.

On the face of it, those figures underscore the huge political gamble that Paul is taking by putting the NSA issue at the centerpiece of his campaign.

Young voters

However, the poll also found that only 25% of young, Internet-savvy voters under the age of 35 believe the warnings of the Obama administration and the intelligence committee that the risk of terrorism will rise without NSA data collection.

Those findings square with a recent poll for the American Civil Liberties Union, which showed that millennial voters and male independents believe government surveillance should be modified.

Politicians – whose jobs depend on picking up early shifts in public opinion – often foreshadow stirrings of political change and it is significant that Paul is not alone in raising questions about the U.S. approach to national security.

Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran who has carved out a reputation as a somewhat hawkish critic of Obama’s foreign policy, is also prepared to come out publicly against the NSA program.

“The issue right now with the Patriot Act is that it actually undermines our national security. It actually makes the American people less safe, as well as undermining our civil liberties,” Gabbard told CNN on Monday. “When you look at the billions of dollars that are being poured into this program, collecting information data in many different ways, not only phone call information, on every single Americans … it’s a distraction,” she said.