GOP View Rand Paul as National Security Distraction in March to 2016
The presidential hopeful got what he wanted—expiration of the Patriot Act—but he alienated a lot of people along the way.
Presidential candidate Rand Paul rode home in a midnight blue Tesla on Sundayas three pillars of the surveillance state collapsed—temporarily, at least.
He shared smiles with the driver, Thomas Massie, and the bespectacled Justin Amash, two Congressmen-friends in the libertarian-wing of the Republican party. Massie's bumper sticker—"Stand with Rand"—and his vanity plate—"NDFED"—shrank from view as they left their parking space in front of the Capitol. There was an extra spot next to Amash in the back seat, but it's unlikely any other Republican senator would have joined those three amigos after what happened that day.
"Government's bulk collection of records is going to end," Paul, the senator from Kentucky, told NBC's Kelly O'Donnell just minutes earlier as he walked to the car.
Indeed. A major Patriot Act spying provision first exposed by Edward Snowden was expiring atmidnight following Paul's stand, along with two less controversial authorities monitoring "lone wolf" terrorists and those who switch from device to device. The move left national security hawks outraged.
"I think Rand has fabricated in his own mind—and that's what he says on the Senate floor—what this program is," Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr told National Journal. "It's so far from the truth that I don't think you find any other members associating with him."
"I have said on many occasions that I believe he would be the worst candidate we could put forward not just on the Patriot Act, but on his views on national security," Sen. John McCain added.
Even some of Paul's erstwhile allies—both in the GOP leadership and the tea party cohort—grew distressed, as Paul not only let those provisions collapse, but also delayed consideration of a bill reforming the National Security Agency and ending its bulk collection of data.
Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, an author of the USA Freedom Act, said there was "a lot of frustration" among GOP senators as they grappled with the situation. He said that his bill goes far enough to appease even the crew of Paul supporters who dotted the Senate gallery in red t-shirts Sunday.
"Most people who are concerned about the Patriot Act are concerned about the Patriot Act because of bulk data collection," said Lee. "I'd say [to them] that the USA Freedom Act, which passed overwhelmingly the House, ends data collection. So we should take this as a win."
Paul also angered Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has endorsed him for president. After Paul blocked a short extension of some of the expiring priorities Sunday, McConnell said on the Senate floor, "It should be worrying for our country because the nature of the threat we face is very serious."
"It's the Kentucky standoff, right?" Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow said.
The state of Rand's loneliness extended Sunday from the Senate floor to a GOP conference meeting behind closed doors. McCain and Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana briefly blocked Paul from speaking on the floor before a vote, and when Paul attempted to interject, McCain snapped, "The senator from Kentucky needs to learn the rules of the Senate." Paul decided not to attend his colleagues' huddle, which Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois dubbed "the We Don't Stand With Rand meeting."
"As you may have noticed out there, there was a little bit of tension on the floor and I didn't think it was going to be that collegial," said Paul.
While he snubbed his colleagues, Paul gained the respect of some influential conservative observers such as Matt Drudge and privacy advocates—including CREDO, Demand Progress, and Fight for the Future, which praised Paul's stand as a victory, albeit a temporary one, as the Senate looks to pass the USA Freedom Act this week.
It's likely Paul's campaign coffers benefited too. "End Illegal NSA Spying" bannered Paul's campaign website and led his recent fundraising drives and social media message. He outlined his strategy in a Time magazine op-ed and had his views discussed on Sunday shows as other presidential candidates, including Jeb Bush, were interviewed. For at least one day, he was the center of attention in American politics.
"He gets clearly a lot of campaign cash that he raises from tweeting on the Senate floor as he portrays that he's got a 30-hour filibuster going when really Rand Paul is going to have a one-hour filibuster and that's all the time he gets," Burr said.
And while he may be unpopular now in the Senate, Paul believes at his core that blocking the NSA's authorities is the right thing to do. It's a message that distinguishes himself from every other Republican—or Democrat—running for president.
"I'm always concerned about our country's safety and I think that the Constitution is a great and powerful tool for collecting records on people you have suspicion of," Paul said as he exited the Capitol on Sunday. "And so I think we should collect more records on terrorists, I just don't want to collect them on innocent Americans."
"I don't think many people question my sincerity on this issue," he added, in response to a question that he tanked some of the Patriot Act authorities to benefit his campaign for the White House. "I've been fighting this battle since I came here."
"There's always going to be cynics."
Lauren Fox and Brendan Sasso contributed to this article.