Rand Paul faces GOP fire on NSA

Francis Rivera

Rand Paul is facing severe blowback from his Senate colleagues and GOP presidential rivals for forcing the temporary expiration of several national security programs.

Several Senate Republicans say Paul’s (R-Ky.) tactics show he’s out of sync with most of his party and call into question his fitness to serve as commander in chief, a criticism echoed by rivals such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on the campaign trail.

{mosads}“It shows how far outside the mainstream he is of where the Republican Party is, on issues of national security and national defense,” said a GOP Senate aide.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), a frequent sparring partner, bashed him to reporters Sunday as “the worst,” while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), under pressure over the expiration of National Security Agency surveillance powers, blamed Paul for the lapse.

Republican colleagues lambasted Paul during a closed-door meeting in the Senate’s Strom Thurmond Room. They were all the more infuriated by the fact that Paul didn’t show up to take the tongue-lashing.

The fight spilled out onto the Senate floor, when Paul repeatedly interrupted McCain to ask Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who was presiding, about how much time was left to debate.

GOP aides privately grumble that if a terrorist attack were to strike the United States while the NSA’s cellphone surveillance program is shuttered, it would prove a political calamity for Paul’s career.

Paul made a similar point Sunday on the Senate floor, where he said that some people were hoping for an attack so that they could blame him.

He backed off those comments in an interview Monday.

“Sometimes, in the heat of battle, hyperbole can get the better of anyone, and that may be the problem there,” he said on Fox News’s “America’s Newsroom.”

“The point I was trying to make is, I think people do use fear to try to get us to give up our liberty,” he said.

Team Paul thinks the public tiff is good for the campaign’s message. Many conservative activists have long distrusted McCain because of his championing of campaign finance and immigration reforms.

“I think it’s playing well with grassroots conservatives outside the Beltway. It’s a classic divide between Republican insiders and people outside the Beltway,” said Matt Kibbe, the president and founder of advocacy group FreedomWorks.

“This is his sweet spot,” said Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former senior aide to Paul. “He’s a defender of the Bill of Rights and he’s fighting against the Washington machine. It fits right into his whole reason for running.

“It’s OK if people hate him in Washington because everyone hates Washington,” Darling added. “Members of Congress won’t decide who’s going to be the nominee for president, so who cares what they think?”

Polling evidence gives both sides some talking points.

A Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll conducted last week found Paul tied for second place in Iowa, the first contest of the 2016 GOP primary.

But the same poll found that the Kentucky Republican’s favorability rating has dropped 9 points since January, more than that of any of his rivals.

Conservative activist Grover Norquist, who holds weekly meetings with grassroots conservative leaders, noted that critics initially faulted Ronald Reagan for taking a too 

confrontational stance against the Soviet Union.

“When people attacked Reagan, they thought they were winning the argument by loudly stating, ‘He wants to confront the Soviet Union.’ Turns out that was a fairly popular position,” he said.

“I think he’s in a very strong position,” Norquist said of Paul. “Americans tend not to trust the government with lots of power. Republican primary voters tend not to trust Obama with a great deal of power.”

But not all Republicans outside of Washington share this assessment.

“The world is as dangerous if not more dangerous than immediately after 9/11, and homeland security is a heightened concern,” said Bryan Eppstein, a GOP strategist based in Texas. “With that in mind, [Paul’s] position is probably held by a very small minority of other people. It’s playing a dangerous game of playing chicken in the political process.”

Tags Chuck Grassley John McCain Mitch McConnell Rand Paul

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