One of the more disturbing quotes of recent days (and that's saying something) is this one:
Obviously, the idea that any insight can be gleaned from the freshman senator -- who famously made the Republican caucus look like a bunch of bumbling fools when they signed on to his embarrassing letter to Iran -- is the disturbing part of that comment. When I described Cotton as "a leading light on the right in foreign policy and national security," back in February, I thought I was making a little joke. But this man, who has been in the Senate for about three months, really has become the go-to expert on all things related to foreign boogeymen.
But as Ed Kilgore noted in an interesting article last week, this is about more than just Tom Cotton. It is part of an overall GOP turn backwards on national security, which was signaled pretty clearly in the 2014 midterms.
I didn’t write about this a whole lot in my own book on the 2014 midterms, but did discuss it: towards the end of that cycle Republican Senate candidates—led by Scott Brown, who ran a surprisingly strong race in NH—really started demagoguing about terrorists pouring into the country via “porous” borders or in response to the general surrender-money [sic] tendencies of the Obama administration. And since the elections, I think we are all aware that Republican pols and rank-and-file alike are increasingly more likely to favor a re-invasion of Iraq or a military confrontation with Iran.
This has made one of the big developments of the previous couple of years—the emergence of a bipartisan coalition in Congress aimed at curtailing Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) surveillance programs at NSA and elsewhere—very, very fragile.
Personally, I thought that coalition was always pretty fragile since it mostly consisted of about six libertarian cranks and a bunch of liberal Democrats, but it was something. And even more than that, the general revulsion among the public over the way the wars had been conducted under Bush and Cheney and the urgent attention required for domestic affairs in the wake of the financial crisis made national security a weak, second-tier issue for Republicans -- a first in the modern era. But it was always only a matter of time before they got their hawkish mojo back, and there is no time better than when the Democrats are likely to be running a woman for president. (As I have written here before, that fits perfectly into their decades-long storyline about "feminized" Democrats that goes all the way back to the era of long-haired hippies.)
So it's not a surprise that we find ourselves on the cusp of another national security election. The economy has improved enough that people aren't feeling a sense of crisis and, unless Jeb gets the nomination, the GOP probably figures they have enough distance from the last disastrous decade now to run their usual game. The problem is that they seem to have decided that their intellectual Godfather is no longer Ronald Reagan, which was bad enough as it was. But no, the young generation of GOP hawks now obviously see Dick Cheney as their role model. Tom Cotton, their new leader, certainly seems to be poured in his mold. If anyone is still laboring under the illusion that the Rand Paul wing of the party is ascendant, they need to think again.
(Not that it was ever actually true, mind you.)
Politico reported on Friday that Tom Cotton's portfolio no longer consists simply of making terrible blunders on Iran. He's now taking up the cause of renewing the PATRIOT Act and also adding new provisions for spying on Americans:
The Arkansas senator, who caused an international firestorm last month with his controversial letter to Iranian leaders, has spent many recent Fridays in Washington at FBI and National Security Agency headquarters, meeting with senior intelligence officials and administration lawyers to build his case for a clean extension of three expiring provisions of the Patriot Act. With the support of GOP leaders, he’s serving as an emissary on the issue to GOP freshmen who are weighing whether to extend the controversial law.
And he is seeking to sell his views on surveillance to Republicans from libertarian-minded states through classified briefings conducted by senior intelligence officials. The emergence of Cotton, an unbending hawk celebrated by neoconservatives as a next-generation party leader on national defense, shows how intent Republican leaders are to prevail over the Paul wing of the GOP. Libertarian-leaning Republicans want to scale back — if not repeal — the Patriot Act before key provisions are set to expire May 31.
It would appear we're about to see whether all the D.C. punditry about the Tea Party wing of the Republican party being libertarian is true. I will be very, very surprised if it is. Hawkish national security policy is in the modern GOP DNA, and they don't care how much it costs. If they can combine a national security critique of Obama and Clinton with worries about ISIS coming over the border and crucifying Christians in small-town USA, they'll hit the trifecta of conservative paranoia: terrorists-immigrants-the War on Christmas. Cotton says he's sure the GOP will not want to roll back any part of the Patriot Act to the terrible '90s (a recurrent but deeply flawed theme among the young right wingers these days.) And the Republican leadership apparently agrees. In fact, they want to add provisions making it even easier to spy on Americans:
The latest fight concerns three expiring provisions of the Patriot Act. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who chairs the Select Committee on Intelligence, offered a bill this week that would extend the provisions for five-and-a-half years. The bill would cover the bulk collection of phone records under the Patriot Act’s 215 program, which generated enormous controversy when it was revealed by leaker Edward Snowden. The bill also would prolong two other measures: A so-called “lone wolf” provision that allows the government to surveil potential terrorists who aren’t directly connected to terrorist cells; and a section that allows the feds to use roving wiretaps to monitor suspects who rapidly change location or communication device.
There's no word on what constitutes a "potential terrorist" or why they need even more ability to monitor suspects than they already have, but we can probably assume there's no such thing as enough of a good thing. Kilgore thinks this offers an opportunity for the Democrats to get back on the right side of this issue and vote against this new expansion of the surveillance state. And he's right that it will also expose the Republicans for what they really are. From what we can gather they will all be elbowing their way to the front of the line to vote yes. Unfortunately, what's really necessary is a rollback of these programs and a strong message from Congress that they have already gone too far. Who can imagine any senator filibustering the PATRIOT Act? Certainly not Rand Paul, who is spinning like a propeller trying to mesh his libertarian leanings with his burning desire to be the Republican nominee for president. (He might as well be trying to run on expanding Obamacare.)
And sadly, if history is any guide there will be a fairly substantial faction of Democrats who will be happy to vote yes as well, even as some of them shed crocodile tears over how terrible it is that the Republicans kept them from making the reforms they really, truly wanted to make. It's all working out nicely for the national security state. It's not such a good outcome for civil libertarians who are valiantly trying to put an expiration date on a law that was precipitously enacted in the heat of the moment after 9/11 and has never had a proper debate.
The only people likely to be dissatisfied in this whole mess are Republican senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who are losing their positions as the most hawkish members of the GOP. But they had a good run. Now it's time for Dick Cheney's disciples to take the reins and bring the party's warmongering spirit into the 21st century. Tom Cotton is prepared to lead the way.