Republicans Put Snooping Policy Over Politics

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Photo: Brooks Kraft/Corbis

You’d expect that the revelations about extensive data gathering under the Obama administration would prompt immediate and gleeful pile-ons from the Republican Party. Yes, the policies originated under the Bush administration. But who cares, right? Republicans have usually been happy to chuck their old positions overboard when the opportunity to embarrass Obama presents itself.

It turns out that lots of Republicans actually do care. Former Bush administration press secretary Ari Fleischer spent his day defending the policies, albeit while also taunting Obama and his supporters:

These comments may have looked like a mind-fuck strategy, which is how Buzzfeed interpreted them. But the procession of Republican testimonials that have followed suggest it’s not. The Wall Street Journal editorial page is defending the phone records data (though its editorial came out too early to incorporate the subsequent, and scarier, revelations about Internet data mining.) Saxby Chambliss is onboard. Nicolle Wallace appeared on Morning Joe to “applaud” Obama, and Karl Rove is fighting with all his might to suppress his inner partisan, and seems to be succeeding:

I would be very cautious about lumping what the administration has done on these other instances, the IRS, the AP, James Rosen and Benghazi, with this, which is not being directed out of the White House. This is not the kind of stuff that’s flown across the desk of Valerie Jarrett.

Give them credit for having courage of their convictions, even if the convictions themselves are probably wrong. Indeed, if you’re like me, trying to figure out what to think about these new revelations, the wholehearted and apparently genuine endorsement of the Karl Roves and Ari Fleischers of the world is a pretty strong heuristic suggesting you should start freaking out.

The Republican response is crucial, because it determines whether the news media treats the story as a “scandal” or as a “policy dispute.” The media convention here is bizarre but relatively predictable. In the Bush era, intelligence disclosures were something only liberals complained about, which made them a policy dispute. Revelations about Obama’s leak prosecutions prompted Republican complaints, turning the issue into a “scandal.”

If Republicans decide to exploit the issue, the intelligence-gathering and leak-prosecution stories will merge, with Benghazi and the IRS, into a giant scandal narrative. That seems like the smart political play, to me. But maybe Republicans actually care about the policy enough not to do that, in this instance. That is, if not good, certainly noble.