The Republican National Committee has a new ad warning that Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama are playing into terrorists’ hands by trying to block permanent changes to surveillance law. Not that Republicans haven’t been playing tough over this issue. They’ve also tried to assert that if the Protect America Act is allowed to expire, all intelligence-gathering will come to a halt. That’s not true, although it could be harder to monitor new targets.
But what’s noteworthy about this RNC ad is that we’ve seen it before, in the Johnson-Goldwater campaign from 1964. The famous (or infamous, if you supported Goldwater) “Daisy” spot was only aired once, but may have so successfully stoked Americans’ fears about nuclear annihilation that it helped LBJ win the election. The RNC ad all but says Americans will be killed by Al Qaeda if Clinton or Obama win the presidency. Expect to see the full-fledged Daisy version as we get closer to November.
Putting that aside for the moment, what’s perhaps most politically notable about the GOP-Dem fight over the Protect America Act is that the Democrats have been unable to capitalize on their position for their own gain. They don’t really want to bankrupt telecommunications companies who helped the NSA monitor phone calls and e-mails after 9/11, even though they did so without traditional warrants. And neither Democrats nor Republicans believe that the law shouldn’t be changed to make it easier for intelligence agencies to do their job. The politics of this debate have become so basic that there’s little room left for serious debate or discussion of broader implications from a change to law, and whether those should be taken into consideration.
I think that if you assess this fight purely on the politics, Democrats are once again coming out on the losing end. They seem either unwilling or unable to assert an alternative to the kind of line the RNC is putting out in its video, which may have some fair points but obviously is not designed to encourage an intellectual discussion. This is all very strange, because Democrats have proposed dramatic changes to surveillance law that their traditional allies in the civil liberties community find repugnant. It’s not as if Dems are truly obstructionist on this stuff. But they are letting themselves be painted as such.