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Three Endangered Democrats for Civil Liberties

The Democratic Party’s liberal hawks have come home to roost in recent weeks. Hillary Clinton is starting to sound as if she never lost the 2008 primaries to Barack Obama. Obama is himself weighing the scope of his reengagement in Iraq.

To top it off, the Democratic National Committee trotted out all the familiar Bush-era tropes against Rand Paul: the senator “blames America for all the problems in the world,” he criticized American policy to the president of another country on foreign soil,” he improved his standing among “isolationists.”

Concluded the DNC flak: “Simply put, if Rand Paul had a foreign policy slogan, it would be—The Rand Paul Doctrine: Blame America. Retreat from the World.” (Capitalization in the original.)

Dick Cheney, call your office—or perhaps your lawyer, to see if there are any copyright violations.

The Democratic devotion to peace and civil liberties closely resembles the Republicans’ commitment to fiscal discipline and balanced budgets: something observed in the opposition and discarded once in power. But just as there are some principled Republicans who object to GOP presidents’ bloated budgets, some Democrats’ antiwar and civil libertarian stances transcend partisanship.

Naturally, in a bad year for Democrats many of these honorable exceptions will lose. One endangered incumbent is Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, a garden-variety liberal on most issues who nevertheless possesses a strong civil libertarian streak.

Udall is one of the leading proponents of reforming the National Security Agency in order to rein in warrantless surveillance and data collection. He claimed last year that he “did everything short of leaking classified information” to alert Americans to NSA’s phone records seizures. He wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder to protest the secret court decisions that inform government interpretations of surveillance law.

After Edward Snowden’s revelations, the senator also co-authored a Los Angeles Times op-ed with colleagues Ron Wyden and Rand Paul titled “How to end the NSA dragnet.” The trio called on Congress “to affirm that we can keep our nation secure without trampling on and abandoning Americans’ constitutional rights.”

Udall told the Denver Post that he felt “vindicated” by the recent bipartisan push for NSA reform.

He has also sought repeatedly to prohibit the indefinite detention of American citizens and to strip a provision allowing such detentions from the National Defense Authorization Act. Udall has said “that these provisions raise serious questions as to who we are as a society and what our Constitution seeks to protect.”

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley doesn’t seem to be in as tight a race as Udall, and he’s seeking reelection in a significantly bluer state. But the occasionalpoll has shown Republican challenger Monica Wehby in a competitive position, so it’s unlikely but not inconceivable that a big enough GOP wave could wash Merkley out of the Senate.

While he receives less recognition than fellow Oregonian Wyden, Merkley has also been a leader in efforts to reform the NSA and enhance oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. He has also pushed to declassify FISA court decisions, joining with Republicans Mike Lee and Dean Heller.

“Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law,” Merkley said last year. “There is plenty of room to have this debate without compromising our surveillance sources or methods or tipping our hand to our enemies.”

Perhaps the most interesting civil-libertarian Democrat running is Shenna Bellows, hailing from Maine’s ACLU. In contrast with incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins’s more establishmentarian bipartisanship, Bellows told The Daily Beast she would look forward to working with Rand Paul and Justin Amash.

Bellows is also the surest loser of the group. Campaigning on a full repeal of the Patriot Act, strict limits on NSA surveillance, and marijuana legalization, she trails Collins by anywhere from 36 to 55 points in sporadic polling. Late last year a survey by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found Collins beating Bellows even among Democrats, while nearly half the Republicans polled thought the incumbent was too liberal to be in their party.

A majority of Democrats in the House have bucked their leadership and voted to curb the NSA, something that seems unlikely to change after the November elections. But the slippage in the Democratic platform on civil liberties detected by liberal outlets like Mother Jones could become more pronounced with a Clinton nomination.

How many of the Democrats who would resist her will be around after the midterm elections?

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?

about the author

W. James Antle III, editor, comes to TAC after managing a stable of reporters as Politics Editor at the Washington Examiner. A former senior writer at TAC, Antle also previously served as managing editor of the Daily Caller, editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation, and associate editor of the American Spectator. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Antle has appeared on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and NPR, among other outlets, and has written for a wide variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Politico, the Week, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Daily Beast, the Guardian, Reason, the Spectator of London, The National Interest and National Review Online. He also serves as a senior adviser to Defense Priorities.

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