A year ago this month, during the media frenzy set off by Edward Snowden’s revelations, it would have been easy to assume that the NSA’s electronic snooping would become a major issue in the 2014 congressional elections. That is how things are supposed to work in a democracy—scandals inevitably lead to political consequences. After all, in a July 2013 CBS News Poll, 67 percent of American adults surveyed called the NSA’s collection of phone records “a violation of privacy.”
Now, past the midway point in the 2014 election season with 31 states having held congressional primaries through Tuesday, tentative conclusions can be drawn. And, contrary to 2013 expectation, it is hard to find evidence that outrage over the NSA and the Big Brother national security state is gaining traction as a voting concern.
This is not to say that the issue has been irrelevant like, say, battles over fluoridation of the water. But even among Tea Party Republicans—the political grouping these days most likely to express concerns about governmental snooping—the subject is dwarfed by vocal attacks on Obamacare, government spending and (mostly invented) threats to gun ownership. Some Democrats running in liberal districts mention the need to rein in the NSA, but these candidates usually stick to a minor key, presumably because they do not want to publicly criticize Barack Obama.
But more often than not, the issue of limits on the government’s collection of electronic data on American citizens is not even on the political radar.
Take, for example, some emblematic primaries being held on Tuesday.
In New York politics, disinterest in Edward Snowden’s revelations unites Democrats and Republicans. The issue is not mentioned on the websites of either Democrat running in Nassau County for the House seat (NY-4) being vacated by Carolyn McCarthy. The same pattern emerges in spirited primary contests for the GOP nomination in potentially winnable Democratic-held House districts on the tip of Long Island (NY-1) and near the Canadian border (NY-21). A close examination of the Republican candidates’ websites, TV ads and news clips about the two races failed to produce even the most fleeting reference to the NSA.
Okay, New York has often been the outlier in national politics as President Rudy Giuliani might be the first to admit. But even Tea Party stalwarts are, for the most part, downplaying the government’s eavesdropping. In Tuesday’s GOP primary for an open House seat in the heavily Republican fourth district of Colorado, right-wing stalwart Ken Buck does attack “NSA spying” in a recent 60-second radio ad. But it is more a drive-by listing than a full-throated attack: “What are the professional politicians in Washington thinking? Common Core. NSA spying. The IRS discrimination. The Obamacare debacle. The Veterans Administration scandal. It’s no wonder that the job approval of Congress is just 13 percent.”
The significance of party primaries is that they often are contests that bring new issues to center stage in American politics. Going back to Ken Buck—he was one of the 2010 Senate candidates whose primary victories heralded the rise of the Tea Party movement. (Full disclosure interlude: I have been monitoring House primaries as part of a project for the Brookings Institution).
In contrast, the fall congressional elections are likely to be highly syncopated affairs with Republicans running against Obama and Democrats vowing to protect Social Security, Medicare and reproductive rights. If the questions surrounding the NSA’s vacuum-cleaner policies have not raised much dirt in the congressional campaigns up to now, then (barring stunning new revelations) they are not likely to be more of a dust ball in October.
These days, the odds are also dwindling that the 2016 presidential election will offer a major referendum on the post-9/11 national security state. Certainly Hillary Clinton, who looks increasingly poised to run, has offered no hints that she would alter the NSA’s approach to domestic data collection.
But it is the changes in the Republican Party in the last six months that have eroded my prior hopes that 2016 would prompt a robust debate on national security. The collapse of the Maliki government’s hold on Iraq has revived the hackneyed GOP refrain that conservatives are tough and liberals are weak.
And, for the moment, that line of argument is winning. A just released New York Times/CBS News Poll found that just 36 per cent of those surveyed approve of Obama’s handling of foreign policy. Beyond Obama’s job-performance ratings, the poll found that a significant 44 percent of Americans worry that the chaos in Iraq will increase the chances of a terrorist attack.
If these trends continue, they will put strong pressure on Obama and the Democrats in 2016 to demonstrate that they are not “soft on terrorism.” And that would mean that it would be politically risky to dial back the NSA’s voracious consumption of Americans’ phone and email records. About the only way that this equation might change is if—in a stunning upset—the Rand Paul libertarian branch of the Republican Party somehow dislodged the super-hawk Dick Cheney-John McCain wing.
There are, to be sure, small rays of hope that the odd-couple alliance between the Tea Party right and the civil-liberties left could enact, at least, cosmetic reforms in how the NSA operates. Late last week, the House by a rare bipartisan vote passed a watered-down version of an amendment that would limit the NSA’s scrutiny of the emails and phone calls of Americans without a warrant. But that legislation will likely die or be mangled beyond recognition somewhere between the Senate floor and the president’s desk.
Without increased pressure from voters in both parties, the national security establishment in Washington will be able to continue to resist modifying its assault on the privacy rights of American citizens. But so far in the 2014 campaigns, it simply is not happening.
There are, to be sure, candidates who have been forthright about the issue. In the race to succeed liberal Henry Waxman in Congress in California’s upscale 33rd District (Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Malibu), Ted Lieu ran as an unabashed foe of the NSA. Lieu, who finished first among Democrats in the June 3rd primary, ran a TV ad in which he declared, “I want to stop the National Security Agency from violating our privacy.” Of course, Lieu’s victory may say more about the politics of Malibu than the politics of the NSA.
For ferocity against an intrusive government, it was hard to top the ad aired by Republican Matt Rosendale in the primary for Montana’s open congressional seat. In the spot called “Rifle Shot,” the candidate actually pretends to shoot down a government drone as he says in the voiceover: “Spying on our citizens—that’s just wrong.”
Rosendale finished third in the June 3rd primary.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.