Sen. Rand Paul’s ongoing fight to block expiring Patriot Act provisions on government spying is a major rallying point for his presidential campaign. And it’s all going down SUNDAY! SUNDAY! SUNDAY!
That’s the macho message in an eye-catching web video from America’s Liberty PAC, an outside group run by veteran Paul allies. The online ad, part of a five-figure buy, features flames, explosions, and a photo-shopped Paul who looks like he walked out of a 1980s action move ready to kick ass and chew bubblegum – and he’s all out of bubblegum.
As the ad demonstrates, the Kentucky Republican and his supporters are using the high-profile standoff to separate him from the 2016 pack on civil liberties. When it comes to his libertarian views on national security issues in general, he’s confidently leaning into his differences like never before rather than blurring them to court more mainstream conservatives. In addition to the NSA battle, Paul sparred with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal this week over the senator’s argument that GOP hawks abetted the rise of ISIS.
“People say ‘How will you stand out?’ and I said I don’t think that’s going to be my problem,” Paul said in Davenport, Iowa, on Thursday. “I’m the only one that's going to run, I think on either side, that will protect your privacy.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who favors maintaining broad spying powers, is calling the Senate back for a rare Sunday session to reach a deal to reauthorize sections of the Patriot Act governing, among other things, the domestic phone records surveillance program revealed by Edward Snowden, that are set to expire June 1. McConnell ordered lawmakers back after Paul and Democratic ally Sen. Ron Wyden -- an Oregon Democrat -- blocked McConnell’s attempts to pass a series of short-term reauthorizations.
Senate procedures rely on unanimous consent to move things forward quickly, and without Paul’s assent, the provisions will expire before the Monday deadline. He has pledged to fight them tooth and nail, making that scenario increasingly likely. The White House is preparing for at least a temporary shutdown of the provisions, something one official described to The New York Times as “playing national security Russian roulette.” Paul and his allies argue these fears are overblown given that reviews of the bulk records program, including one by a White House-appointed group, found it has not played a significant role in thwarting terrorist attacks so far.
That sets up the SUNDAY! SUNDAY! SUNDAY! showdown, with Paul at the center of the conflict. An important backdrop, noted by Politico’s Alex Isenstadt, is Paul’s relative lack of big money supporters so far, which puts pressure on him to rally the kinds of hardcore libertarian supporters who backed his father’s campaigns to donate small dollar amounts.
In this context, the America’s Liberty ad hyping the NSA debate was notable for its choice of villains, namely Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is probably closer to Paul on civil liberties issues than anyone else in the GOP presidential race and is competing for an overlapping pool of grassroots dollars. The ad refers to Cruz as "the capitulating Canadian” and features a giant maple leaf flag and cud-chewing moose for emphasis (Cruz was born in Canada but has since renounced his dual citizenship). Jesse Benton, a leading strategist in Paul world working for America’s Liberty, also tweeted some shade at Cruz last week for not joining Paul’s 11-hour filibuster against the PATRIOT Act reauthorization. He ended up participating.
Cruz favors the House-passed USA Freedom Act as the solution to the NSA standoff, which would leave collection of phone records to phone companies and require the government to spell out narrower requests for information. Paul opposes the bill for not going far enough and some civil liberties groups who supported earlier iterations are concerned the final version and a possible Senate alternative will leave too much room for government overreach. As the ad notes, the White House is also supportive of the USA Freedom Act. A spokeswoman for Cruz’s campaign declined to respond to the ad.
Other campaigns have used Paul’s involvement in the NSA debate to play up their hawk credentials with the right. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has tangled with Paul repeatedly over the years on national security issues, has called NSA critics “civil liberties extremists” whose fears are “exaggerated and ridiculous.” Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose brother George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act into law, has flatly called Paul “wrong” on the issue and called for the expiring provisions to be renewed.
While Jindal unloaded on Paul over ISIS this week, he has actually come around somewhat to his perspective on the Patriot Act, recently saying he was “very sympathetic” to the senator’s concerns about overreach.
Expect this fight to garner more attention with Sunday’s negotiations, especially if the White House is forced to stand down intelligence programs after the June 1 deadline. That means plenty more opportunities for Paul, Cruz, and the rest of the field to debate their differences to bigger and bigger audiences at a time when the growing number of candidates will need to work harder than ever to stand out.