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Civil Liberties: A GOP Civil War?

As Republicans reject Obama's national-security state, Sen. Lindsey Graham targets his own party's libertarian wing.
NAWA, Helmand province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — Senator Lindsey Graham, a senior senator from South Carolina, makes his way through the Nawa District Governance Center to the governor’s Marine House during a visit to Nawa, Afghanistan, Nov. 11, 2010. Graham, along with Senators John McCain, a senior senator from Arizona, Kirsten Gillibrand, a junior senator from New York, and Joseph I. Lieberman, a junior senator from Connecticut, visited Marines of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, where they toured Khalaj High School, the Nawa District bazaar and the Nawa District Governance Center as well as meeting with Nawa government officials. (Official Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Mark Fayloga)

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Rand Paul had strong words for the National Security Agency. “Get a warrant, go after a terrorist or a murderer or a rapist,” he said. “But don’t troll through a billion phone records every day.”

The Kentucky senator went on to threaten a class-action lawsuit against such trolling. His remarks capped a week of bipartisan outrage over revelations that the federal government’s global surveillance program was much broader in scope than anticipated.

While Verizon was the first carrier implicated, there are now reports that the NSA has clandestine access to real-time user data for customers of as many as 50 companies. Even one of the Republican congressmen behind the Patriot Act cried foul.

Seizing phone records of millions of innocent people is excessive and un-American,” Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a past chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.

But not everyone in the GOP is on board with this great privacy awakening. “Sen. Rand Paul, he’s a libertarian, and in Rand Paul’s world you have almost no defenses against terrorists,” blustered South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. “In Rand Paul’s world, you can’t hold somebody for questioning who’s been involved in an attack on our country.”

This broadside elicited a fierce reaction from South Carolinian Nancy Mace, the first woman to graduate from the Citadel—and a possible Graham primary challenger. “In Senator Graham’s world, the Constitution doesn’t exist,” Mace wrote. “In Senator Graham’s world, the entire Bill of Rights is negotiable.”

Mace zinged Graham for believing “arming al-Qaeda in Syria is a good idea.” She argued Graham “says we’re fighting for freedom but is the first to surrender all of them.” Mace concluded, “Maybe Senator Graham has been living in a world of his own for too long.”

Give Graham credit for consistency: unlike other Republican opportunists, he wants Barack Obama to exercise the same untrammeled executive powers he believes belonged to George W. Bush. No matter who the commander-in-chief is, he says America is a battlefield.

That’s why the ascendancy of Rand Paul—who would be as quick to criticize warrantless surveillance under President Romney, Ryan or Rubio—tears open a real debate within the Republican Party.

For one side maintains that low taxes and the sanctity of innocent human life can somehow coexist with permanent war. The other side realizes that if the homeland is a battlefield, we must live under something closer to martial law than the Bill of Rights—a proposition incompatible with limited government.

While Graham does not speak for as many Republicans as he did during the Bush years, he makes one argument that is still likely to resonate on the right: “I see the threat to the average American, radical Islam coming to our backyard trying to destroy our way of life. He sees the threat [from] the government that’s trying to stop the attack.”

South Carolina’s senior senator accuses Paul of believing that people in our government are a “bunch of Nazis” rather than “patriotic Americans.”

The trump card for McCain-Graham Republicans and their many allies in the Democratic Party is that they can claim various federal actions have prevented terrorist attacks while the alleged proof is usually classified.

When terrorist attacks fail or do not occur, the surveillance state is vindicated. When terrorism happens, it proves the surveillance state needs more power. To think otherwise is to brand patriotic Americans Nazis, which of course only unpatriotic conservatives do.

But so far it is Paul’s defense of the Fourth Amendment—conveniently violated by a Democratic administration—that is capturing conservatives’ imaginations. Tea Party groups are railing against the NSA alongside the IRS.

Grassroots conservatives seem to be standing with Rand rather than rolling their eyes at the wacko birds. They are quoting Sen. Barack Obama, who was skeptical of trading liberty for security, against President Obama.

Can this trend endure past the current administration? Only time will tell. We may not be living in Rand Paul’s world or Lindsey Graham’s, but the next few elections will help determine whose party the GOP is.

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