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Wouldn't Be (And Isn't) Prudent


I don’t see anything more than prudent post-primary adjustment.

One of the most disturbing things about “mainstream” reaction to Obama’s reversals, particularly the reversal regarding the FISA legislation, is the idea that defending the Fourth Amendment against egregious, systematic violation by the government is some far-out extremist position that must be watered down or abandoned in order to appeal to “the middle.”  If I were in the political “middle,” I would be deeply offended by the idea that supporting the gutting of core civil liberties is required to win my vote.  If it is true that voters in “the middle” will reward assaulting constitutional protections for the illusion of security, some constitutional liberties won’t have much of a chance of surviving another administration like this one.  To be clear, this is not just a question of granting telecom immunity, undesirable as that is, but it is a question of resisting warrantless–and therefore illegal–wiretapping. 

Greenwald explains more fully why Obama’s justifications for his move are wrong and flatly contradict everything he has said on the matter before now:

In the past, Obama has opposed the type of warrantless eavesdropping which those PAA orders authorize. He’s repeatedly said that the FISA court works and there’s no need to authorize eavesdropping without individual warrants. None of that can be reconciled with his current claim that he supports this FISA “compromise” because National Security requires that those PAA orders not expire and that there be massive changes to FISA. It’s just as simple as that.        

It is important to note at this point that this is not an issue, as demagogues will try to make it, of defending the Fourth Amendment or allowing terrorist conspiracies to develop without the possibility of monitoring their communications.  It is a question of whether that surveillance will be subjected to judicial scrutiny through the FISA court and whether the government will have to justify its wiretapping in each case, or if the government will be permitted to engage in that surveillance of any and all international communications with essentially no oversight and no accountability.  Obama supports giving the government and this administration the unchecked power to spy on anyone they choose to spy on.  That’s pretty inspiring, isn’t it?   

As Yglesias notes, despite Obama’s reversals his overall platform is still much further to the left than recent Democratic nominees, and it seems to me that this is what the Obama campaign is banking on when the candidate engages in cynical reversals on fundamental questions of constitutional liberty.  They are counting on the rest of his agenda to bring along progressives who are appalled and disgusted by this most defensive of cowering crouches on national security, and they may be right.  As someone with no sympathy for Obama’s domestic agenda, I find the backtracking on civil liberties to be especially worrisome, since it seems to confirm that we will have the worst of the welfare and security states under a President Obama.  This just drives home for me how inexplicable small-government, constitutionalist conservative support for Obama is, since these supporters don’t have the excuse that they generally agree with the candidate’s domestic policies.  It also makes it clear why a strong showing by Barr is very important, since neither major candidate seems particularly interested in defending the Constitution.

P.S. I would add that the reflex of some Obama supporters to justify his reversal on the FISA legislation in terms of prudence and/or the political need to “move to the center” reinforces the unhealthy and dangerous pattern of identifying policies that subvert civil liberties and expand the power of government in the name of national security as “centrist.” This makes dissent from such terrible policies to be extremist by definition, which works to marginalise the genuinely more moderate, prudent and (in my view) properly conservative arguments against increasing the power of the security state.  If an able rhetorician could make the argument with conviction that constitutional liberties are fundamental and non-negotiable and that we have an obligation to preserve the legacy that has been handed down to us, he might be able to reframe the entire debate.  Or he could yield to the Washington consensus that says that civil liberties are the concern of the fringe and can be trampled on as and when necessary.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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