The national debate over revelations about the scope of National Security Agency counterterrorism surveillance has had an unexpected benefit for U.S. political discourse.
For almost the first time since President Barack Obama’s election, the debate is not along party lines.
Democrats are split, some viewing NSA’s collection of telephone data from U.S. residents as gross overreach and others seeing it as a reasonable balance between privacy and security. Republicans have the same split.
Democrats tend to respect both Obama’s sincerity and intelligence. While some see inconsistencies between Obama’s pre-2008 rhetoric on civil liberties and his actions as president as a betrayal, others recognize another explanation. It could be he changed his position not due to hypocrisy, but because the facts to which he became privy in the Oval Office convinced him the threats to Americans were greater than he had previously realized.
Many of these same Democrats, of course, held former President George W. Bush in disdain. They viewed his surveillance efforts as grotesque overreach. He was, they thought, using a terrorist attack as an excuse to increase his power.
The fact that Obama continued Bush’s domestic surveillance efforts forces Democrats to step back. Maybe Bush’s actions were not entirely irrational. The fact that two men with dramatically different philosophies both arrived at the same conclusion when it came to the importance of protecting the homeland tends to undermine the evidence they compiled against Bush.
Republicans are going through some of the same transition. They have clung to the belief that Obama is weak and elevates his global reputation over domestic security, yet it turns out he has been aggressive in fighting terrorism. Indeed, he has been so concerned about protecting Americans that he has been willing to risk derision from his base and to expose himself to claims that his pre-2008 rhetoric on civil liberties were disingenuous.
The utter gridlock in Congress has had less to do with elected officials than with the polarization of the American people. Americans have fallen into the fallacy that their presidents are either all bad or all good. Republicans want to view Obama as an enemy, just as Democrats wanted to view Bush as an enemy.
The disastrous result has been that Republicans in Congress are afraid to work with Obama, because they will pay a political price. The Republican base too often equates a golf game with the president — or agreement with one of his proposals — as fraternization with the enemy. It’s an unhealthy trend that began with Democrats when Bush was president.
The truth — not nearly as interesting for pundits — is that both presidents are imperfect humans who have generally tried to do what is best for their country. If Americans can get past the lazy practice of lauding or condemning their policies based on the source, gridlock in Congress will subside.