Obama’s Liberaltarian Opportunity

Obama Speaks At White House Conference On Mental Health

What has emerged in the past few days is a fascinating snapshot of a shifting political landscape. On the one side, we have a libertarian-civil liberties left alliance. On the other, a strange world where Bill Kristol and Joe Klein are on the same page. Personally, I think it’s a shame that this alliance has emerged over PRISM because it seems to me to be one of the less worrisome anti-terrorism policies. My general inclination is to back the liberaltarians on these questions, but I have never been a purist, appreciate the political balances required and wish this debate were not also wrapped in accusations of treason and heroism.

But we have a truly remarkable development here. The president, while defending PRISM, is open to ending it – or debating it more widely. That’s of a piece with his recent speech on terrorism. So he’s inviting more scrutiny of the issue in general – and encouraging, therefore, both Republican and Democratic opposition. Nate Silver gets the strange moment here:


But this is the money graphic:

fivethirtyeight-0611-nsa3-blog480What we’re seeing here is a two-pronged pincer from the liberal conscience and the libertarian mind against the current center – from two years ago. I wonder what this chart would look like today. What we’ve outed this past week is the potential for a serious alliance, led from behind by the president.

Of course, there are two obvious caveats:

Some of the Republican opposition is so brazenly partisan its cynicism almost blows you away. But since they seem only to care about wounding Obama, it’s still a politically potent force, susceptible only to the possibility that Obama might at some point agree. The second caveat is that the public backs the security-over-surveillance center by a hefty margin – for the moment – and so it may not be a propitious moment for this emergent potential realignment to bear fruit.

But it may be the start of something, no? Nate looks at party primaries, where cross currents will shake up both parties from within. And you can imagine this alliance becoming more cohesive if we continue success in foiling terror attacks, withdraw from Afghanistan and ease back to a more conventional pre-9/11 mindset. It is not beyond Obama to be dragged toward this liberaltarian axis, and it is almost certain that Rand Paul may inject this theme very powerfully in the GOP presidential primaries.

I’m not shocked by PRISM. But if the president began to argue that he thinks it may be time to retire such and similar programs – and he already has – then he could leave a civil liberties legacy much better than the one that now seems likely. So while defending his past practice as justifiable, I have two words for those on the right and the left who want to unwind our overweening security state: Make him.

(Photo: Win McNamee/Getty)