Whatever the Edward Snowden story ultimately represents in terms of the conflict between national security claims and civil liberties, the political impact is clearly going to be intense and fast-moving. Even aside from those on the left side of the spectrum who are lionizing Snowden as a great American hero, there is an inchoate but growing sense (I can’t provide any links to this sentiment just yet, but am feeling it everywhere) among progressives that patience with the Obama administration’s continuation of Bush national security policies is running out, and that this is the moment to consummate the transition signaled in his National Defense University speech and signal a break with the past. Underlying this impulse is rejection of the 1980s/1990s/2000s-era political postulate that Democrats cannot afford, ever, to look “weak” on national security.
But it would be premature to suggest there is a major party rift in the works. Virtually all of the talk about extraditing and prosecuting Snowden, so far, is coming from Republicans. Obama’s National Intelligence Director James Clapper has referred Snowden’s case to the Justice Department for possible prosecutorial action, but that’s it. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who has been outspoken in defending aggressive surveillance activities and investigations of leaks, has so far been quiet about Snowden’s potential criminal liability. And the White House hasn’t been heard from either.
It’s much clearer that Snowden is presenting a major problem (as well as am Obama-bashing opportunity) for the GOP and the conservative movement. Peter King is calling for extradition of the leaker, and Eric Cantor is promising a House investigation. And for every Glenn Beck joining Ellsberg and Michael Moore in calling Snowden a hero, there’s a Max Boot calling him a “misguided and malevolent individual.”
Most of all, this is a tricky situation for Rand Paul, who has threatened to sue the federal government over the NSA’s sweep of phone numbers from telecom companies, but hasn’t linked arms with Snowden just yet (the unsurprising revelation that Snowden was a supporter of his father’s 2012 campaign may make this silence quickly impossible).
Mike Tomasky is convinced this entire situation is the match that will finally ignite the smoldering neocon/paleocon/libertarian tensions on the Right into a conflagration:
What used to be the Ron Paul-crank-libertarian faction, easily outnumbered by the neocons, is growing, and his son—a senator rather than just a congressman, young rather than curmudgeonly old, able to appeal to groups his father could not—is a much stronger standard-bearer for the anti-war-machine, pro-civil-libertarian message. Paul, it seems, is definitely running for president, and given the field, he’ll probably be in the first tier of contenders. He’ll have the ability to force a debate about these issues in a way his father never could.
The war caucus still dominates inside the GOP. But what really dominates the Republican Party mindset, what conquers everything, is the thermogenic desire to see Barack Obama have a bad day at the office, whatever it takes. So to the extent that Snowden proves useful to them in the coming days and weeks, they will use him. And liberals should say: let them.
I agree the set of issues raised by this case are harder to finesse than more conventional national security issues where Paul and the neocons can agree on unilateralism even as they mute differences over interventionist and non-interventionist postures. Most importantly, however, this is a rapidly developing story that tends to produce highly emotional reactions. So I’m not sure conservatives will be able to keep their rickety coalition together, particularly if Obama and Democrats find some way to avoid a rupture in their own.