In May 2013, The Guardian announced it had groundbreaking news regarding the US National Security Agency. A leaker, Edward Snowden, had revealed to them a mass surveillance program on a scale far beyond anything previously imagined. Just a few months before, the NSA Director James Clapper had categorically denied that such a program existed during Senate Committee hearings. This announcement proved divisive among both left and right in the United States. The Obama administration and their allies in Congress defended the NSA and denied the allegations, with only dissent from their Progressive Caucus. Most senior Republicans, having greatly expanded the powers of the NSA during the Bush administration, refrained from criticism. Several Republican leaders and potential 2016 presidential contenders weighed in, highlighting the split between the authoritarian Republican Party of George W. Bush and the libertarian-leaning Tea Party.
The conservative grassroots and their allies in the Republican backbenches rapidly denounced the NSA. Tea Party groups like FreedomWorks and Campaign for Liberty, citing this as yet another example of the President’s increasingly authoritarian policies, led anti-NSA rallies in Washington. Likewise, their figureheads in Congress became the NSA’s harshest critics. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky was the most vehement in his opposition to the NSA, filing a class action lawsuit against the agency and declaring Snowden a “civil disobedient” on par with Martin Luther King and Clapper a “traitor” who “lied to Congress”. Paul’s personal ties to Snowden run deep: Paul’s legal advisor, Bruce Fein happens to be the lawyer of Snowden’s father, while Edward Snowden himself donated to the presidential campaign of Rand’s father, Ron Paul. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas held a similar tone on the issue, claiming that Snowden had done his nation a “considerable public service” through the leaks, while California Congressman Tom McClintock and Utah Senator Mike Lee expressed support for granting Snowden clemency. In July 2013, Michigan Congressman Justin Amash introduced a bipartisan amendment to curb the NSA’s overreach. It failed 205-217, but Amash intends to reintroduce it this year, where he believes increased constituent pressure on the issue will help it pass the House of Representatives.
By contrast, former 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who served as a Senator for Pennsylvania during the Bush presidency, claimed the surveillance was not “a security risk to the country, to individuals or an invasion of privacy”. New York Congressman Peter King, Chairman of the House Committee on National Security quickly backed him up, declaring “These people in the NSA are patriots”. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a former prosecutor appointed by Bush, agreed, stating that he believed criticism of the NSA from members of both parties to be “dangerous”. John Bolton, a prominent neoconservative who took a number of roles in the Bush administration (including Ambassador to the United Nations), went even further, openly proclaiming that Snowden “ought to swing from a tall oak tree” for his treason; his vivid description reminiscent of political lynching in the 1930s Deep South. The Republican National Committee remained silent until January of this year, when they voted to adopt a resolution condemning the NSA, under massive constraint from their supporters.
In September of 2013, the district of Ghouta, Damascus was hit by a sarin gas attack and the West believed the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to be responsible. Immediately, Obama’s liberal internationalists and Bush’s neoconservatives alike united to call for military action against Syria. The Democrats introduced an “Authorization of Military Force” or AUMF into the House and the Senate. Neoconservative Republican Senators swiftly endorsed it, with the 2008 presidential nominee John McCain describing it as “catastrophic” if the US were not to intervene. Once again, Rand Paul and his Liberty Caucus provided vocal opposition to this push, echoing the very same views expressed in the same chamber by Robert Taft 70 years prior: it is not the role of the United States to police the world. Paul also argued that intervention in Syria would serve to aid extremist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda, instantly refuting potential attempts to portray him as soft on the War on Terror. Dozens of conservative Republicans in both the House and Senate joined him. This surge of non-interventionism led the President to delay the House vote by a week, during which time the Syrians (with Russian support) came forward and agreed to negotiate a handover of their chemical weapon stockpiles. Rand Paul had prevailed – the United States had avoided involvement in what could otherwise have been yet another expensive war in the Middle East.
Paul may be the most prominent, but he is not the only leader within this individualist wing of the Republican Party. An issue he perhaps deferred to others on was the anti-Obamacare effort, spearheaded by constitutional lawyers and freshmen Senators Cruz and Lee on the federal level and conservative Governors such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker on the state level.
The 1st of October was the beginning of a new fiscal year and therefore a spending bill had to be passed in order to sustain the full functionality of the federal government. Cruz insisted that the Republicans agree to this only if the bill defunded Obamacare, the President’s health insurance mandate (signed into law in 2010 when the Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress). Cruz decided to deliver a 21-hour filibuster, the 4th longest in US history, in order to articulate his disdain for Obamacare and draw attention to his cause. His ideological acolytes in the House, impressed by his speech, agreed to his plan. The Obama administration objected to this move and the Democrats, who also controlled the Senate, demanded that funding for Obamacare continue. Many deemed what followed to be a “government shutdown” – this description is rather misleading, as only 15% of the federal government that which was considered ‘nonessential’ was shut down. Irate moderate Republicans decried the move – McCain accused Cruz of acting in a “shameful” manner, while King described it as a “fool’s error” and called Cruz a “fraud”. Regardless, House Republicans persisted for 16 days, before the GOP leadership caved and agreed to pass a continuing resolution that would fund the entire federal government once again, Obamacare included, a move that was interpreted as surrender by the Democrats and betrayal by the Tea Party. Support for the Republicans plummeted as the liberal media succeeded in portraying them as anarchists and extremists for having attempted this strategy, though they soon recouped it when on October 1st, the launch of the Obamacare website, Healthcare.gov, proved disastrous, with thousands reporting technical problems. Ted Cruz and the Tea Party had been right – Obamacare was destined to be a failure.
The conservative battle against Obamacare continued on the state level – the Republican Governors of 20 states refused to allow the expansion of Medicaid as part of Obamacare through the establishment of Obamacare exchanges. Moderate Governors affiliated with the Republican establishment, such as Christie, Ohio’s Jim Kasich and New Mexico’s Susana Martinez (all of whom are regarded as viable Republican presidential candidates) did not attempt to defy the federal government on this issue, once again showing a stark disparity to their Tea Party counterparts.
Although many believe politicians like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz to be leading the Republican Party down the road to ideological absolutism, much of their platform consists of common sense policies that appeal to Americans on the right, left and centre. Polls have shown that a majority of Americans support auditing the Federal Reserve, limiting surveillance both by the NSA and by domestic drones, cutting foreign aid, staying out of new conflicts in the Middle East, cutting income tax, improving border security, ending corporate welfare and reforming the country’s harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws, all causes espoused by the likes of Paul and Cruz. Republican and Democratic political orthodoxy has traditionally been to move in a more moderate direction come election time, but with traditional frontrunners like Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie marred by scandal and Barack Obama’s failure to deliver on his populist message of “Hope and Change”, there may just be an opportunity for maverick libertarian Republicans and this could steer such candidates towards success in 2014, 2016 and beyond.
Contributed by Jay Patel