In the 1990s, many Democrats embraced Bill Clinton’s wars of choice in the Balkans and accepted his encroachments on civil liberties following the Oklahoma City bombing, while many Republicans tilted noninterventionist and libertarian. If Al Gore had been president on 9/11, this pattern might have persisted, with conservatives resisting the Patriot Act the way they’ve rallied against the T.S.A.’s Rapiscan technology, and Vice President Joe Lieberman prodding his fellow Democrats in a more Cheney-esque direction on detainee policy.
But because a Republican was president instead, conservative partisans suppressed their libertarian impulses and accepted the logic of an open-ended war on terror, while Democratic partisans took turns accusing the Bush administration of shredding the Constitution.
At first glance, this seems plausible. On closer examination, it doesn’t hold up well at all. As James Fallows notes, on the specific question of absurd security theater Ross’ claim is wrong. On the whole, people on the left who are not troubled by the obnoxious TSA scans and pat-downs have not been terribly troubled about most of the other infringements on constitutional protections carried out over the past nine years, and most of the people on the right who have discovered “libertarian impulses” in this case have shown no signs of such impulses until the last year and a half. These impulses were not suppressed during the Bush years. They did not exist. Instead, they have materialized out of nowhere.
Ross sets up the column by citing conservative responses to Clinton-era policies, but what he fails to do is show that the same responses are occurring this time. There would have to be a similar shift on the right under Obama, and it is largely not happening, so the distorting effects of partisanship don’t really account for that much. Aside from the backlash against obnoxious TSA procedures, can anyone point to a significant movement of conservatives towards more non-interventionist and libertarian positions on national security issues? Where Obama has continued Bush-era security policies, conservative commentary has ranged from the disingenuous claim that “Obama is turning out to be better on these issues than I thought” to the mocking attack that “the silly left-winger Obama has been forced to face harsh reality.” Where Obama has rejected or modified Bush’s policies in any way, mainstream conservative criticism has typically been that Obama is indulging his base and/or jeopardizing national security.
I would argue that much of the conservative criticism of Clinton’s foreign policy that we saw in the ’90s was not a tilt towards non-interventionism at all, but instead represented frustration with military interventions that did not strike at what these critics saw as the “real” enemies of the United States. Part of this was indeed just a partisan reflex to criticize the administration no matter what it did, but this meant that for every conservative critique of the Balkan interventions (of which only a very few were non-interventionist critiques) there were two attacks on Clinton for not taking a hard enough line against Iraq or Iran or North Korea or Russia or China, depending on which regime happened to be the preferred focus of outrage. The initial response on the right to intrusive legislation after the Oklahoma City bombing may have struck many of the right constitutionalist and libertarian notes, but this vanished within a year or two when it became much more useful to bash Clinton for being too soft on terrorism in general and Bin Laden in particular.
Today the story is not that different. Even when some conservative hard-liners have objected to the TSA procedures, it is usually not because they have rediscovered their inherent distrust of the national security state’s power (which they never had!), but because these procedures have simply underscored for them how silly it is to screen all passengers at airports. The uproar over obnoxious TSA methods has presented them with a new opportunity to revisit their calls for profiling. At best, most of these protests are complaints against inconvenience rather than objections against intrusive government, and many of them do not reject authoritarian practices, but simply want to change the form of authoritarian practices. To that end, rhetoric about preserving American liberty is useful, but these are often the same people who have tended to justify every government encroachment on liberty and every expansion of the warfare and national security state in the name of “defending freedom.” This is all fitted into the larger Republican attack that Obama refuses to “name” the enemy, and that he has erred by no longer referring to the “war on terror.”
There are other ways to test Ross’ claim. PATRIOT Act renewal came up for a vote earlier this year. If the “partisan mindset” is indeed awesomely powerful, it should have been the case that Republicans voted overwhelmingly against renewal. Instead, renewal passed the House 315-97 with 90% of the nays coming from the Democratic side. The measure passed the Senate by unanimous voice vote after privacy reform amendments were stripped out at the insistence of some Senate Republicans. That tells me that aside from a handful of honorable exceptions, including Ron Paul, Walter Jones, and Jimmy Duncan, there simply aren’t very many Republican representatives who object to intrusive and authoritarian anti-terrorist legislation no matter which party controls the White House. For that matter, there aren’t enough Democratic representatives who object to this sort of legislation on principle, but there were 87. If the “partisan mindset” changed national security views as dramatically as Ross suggests, there should have been many more anti-Obama Republicans resisting renewal of the PATRIOT Act than Democrats.
We could go down the list of relevant issues, and the pattern would be the same. Partisanship does not change that much in terms of the positions taken by members of the two parties. What it can do is change the intensity of feeling. This means that antiwar activists and civil libertarians are caught in an odd bind: many of them are genuinely appalled by Obama’s continuation of Bush-era security policies on detention and surveillance (and especially by his outrageous new claim of assassination powers), they are disgusted that his administration is hiding behind the state secrets privilege to cover up for the Bush administration, and they object to escalating the war in Afghanistan. However, they know very well that the alternative to Obama is to have all of these things, plus torture, aggressive foreign policy in all directions, and possibly war with Iran.
Of course, people should be outraged by the intrusiveness of these new procedures (because the entire process is an absurd overreaction to a real, but limited threat), just as they should have been outraged by the damage done to constitutional liberties for the past decade and more in the name of anti-terrorism, but one of the reasons that there are so few members of Congress willing to cast votes against excessive anti-terrorist legislation is that their constituents do not value constitutional liberties as highly as they claim they do. More to the point, when it does not directly affect their constituents it is clear that there is even less concern for the constitutional liberties of others. Indeed, what we might conclude about a significant part of the backlash is that the slogan of the protesters is not so much “Don’t Tread On Me” as it is “Why Won’t You Leave Me Alone and Go Tread On Them?”