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Week In Politics: New Presidential Contenders, Patriot Act


And to talk more about where this debate is going and the week in politics, we turn to our guest. Filling in for E. J. Dionne is Suzy Khimm, senior editor at The New Republic. Welcome to the studio, Suzy.

SUZY KHIMM: Hi, Audie. How are you?

CORNISH: And sitting in today for David Brooks in New York, Reihan Salam, executive editor of the National Review.

REIHAN SALAM: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Thank you so much, and feel free to jump in since we can't see you.


CORNISH: Now, we heard in that piece that these powers outlined in the Patriot Act will expire on Sunday night. And, of course, it's brought to head a debate that I don't - I'm surprised to see, you know, about maybe these powers expiring altogether, right? So far, the conversation has been about reforming them and noodling around the edges. Suzy, what do you make of the fact that this conversation has come to this point?

KHIMM: I think that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell really underestimated the depth of the opposition, not just from folks to - like Rand Paul, who want to do away with many of these powers altogether, but also from House Republicans who are really set on reforming and limiting the authorities that the NSA and the federal government have in terms of this kind of data collection. I think that Mitch McConnell really wanted and sort of expected to push the Senate, to push for at least a very short-term extension, all the way down to 24 hours of the provisions as is, without changes to the law, which is what he ultimately wants. Ultimately, this wasn't like what we've seen before with a shutdown fight over the government or the debt ceiling. That kind of brinksmanship doesn't work when you're in a place where the opposition's actually perfectly happy to let some of these provisions expire. As we heard earlier, this is the position of The New York Time's editorial board. So this is something that I don't think he was prepared for, and it really sort of came to a head, as we saw last week in the Senate, and I would expect to see again this weekend.

CORNISH: Reihan, for you, the Senate has been a place where the stalwart supporters of these programs have really been able to hold their ground, right?

SALAM: Well, here's the problem. The USA Freedom Act actually does make a pretty positive difference. It has broad bipartisan support for a very good reason, which is that it introduces much-needed transparency into these provisions. But what's happened is that many of the civil libertarians who previously said, yeah, that's what we need, we need transparency, we need to be sure there's meaningful democratic accountability over these programs, are now saying, you know what? We're just going to let it expire. We're going to let it sunset. That's going to be great. What they don't appreciate is that, actually, quote, unquote, "sunsetting" this provision doesn't mean all that much if you don't have transparency because, first of all, a lot of those Patriot Act powers are permanent. They don't sunset. And also, the pre-Patriot Act powers could be interpreted very, very broadly. So The USA Freedom Act is not perfect, but by actually introducing those transparency reforms, it addresses the real concerns that a lot of civil libertarians have. So I think that, frankly, people in this debate on both sides of it are just confused about what's really at stake.

CORNISH: This is another moment where Senator Rand Paul is sort of in a position somewhat opposite the more hawkish wing of the party. This week, when it came to ISIS, you had the Obama administration defending its handling of ISIS and Iraqi forces in their failure to fight the militants. But Rand Paul said this on MSNBC. He said, ISIS exists and grew stronger because of the hawks in our party who gave arms indiscriminately, and most of those arms were snatched up by ISIS. And then he went on to say this.


RAND PAUL: They created these people. ISIS is all over Libya because these same hawks in my party loved - they loved Hillary Clinton's war in Libya. They just wanted more of it.

CORNISH: Reihan Salam, using Hillary Clinton there - that's, like, practically fighting words, right (laughter)? I mean, what's going on here?

SALAM: So, the frustrating thing is that Rand Paul could take a very simple, straightforward, coherent position, which is that ISIS is their fight. It's not our fight. It's not our concern. We shouldn't be there. That is his father's position. That's a pretty straightforward, antiwar, libertarian kind of position. But Rand Paul is trying to have it both ways. He's saying that, well, no, in fact, we should be involved in the fight against ISIS. But then he's saying that, well, it should involve Arab troops, not U.S. troops. Well, the Iraqi government is fielding a lot of Arab troops. And, so that, you know, they would fight rather than U.S. troops, we gave them arms. But in this statement, he's saying that, well, that's a terrible thing. We gave them all these arms willy-nilly. But, you know, again, if you're saying we ought to fight ISIS, if you're saying that we ought to care, then it's either Arab troops, proxies that are going to fight that war with, presumably, U.S. arms, or it's going to be us fighting them directly. So I think that, actually, Rand Paul's found himself in this weird muddle. He's trying to be too clever by half, and it means that he's just, you know, offering a less-clear distinction for the kind of libertarian voters who normally who have lived liked him, but he's also not appealing to the kind of hawkish, traditional GOP voter. So I don't what he's trying to do here.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, Suzy Khimm, I mean, this is going to be a problem for Democrats, right? I don't see this ISIS question going away.

KHIMM: Yeah, and I think it's one reason that, I think, Democrats are kind of relieved that this debate isn't one that is being had out on the floor of Congress right now. This is something that President Obama has really wanted, is to have Congress formally authorize the war against ISIS. I think, privately at least, many folks are sort of relieved to see the fact that this isn't something that is going to be hashed out in that kind of way. I mean, the reality is that things aren't going well - very well in the fight against ISIS. We saw the fall of Ramadi a few weeks ago.

SALAM: That's an understatement.

KHIMM: (Laughter) And I think, you know, the reality is we're sort of seeing that the shortcomings and the limitations in terms of the Obama administration's own strategy there in terms of committing airpower and airstrikes, but saying that he's sort of drawing a line, that there aren't going to be troops on the ground. So I think that that does put Democrats in a difficult position, which it's clear that the administration's strategy at this point doesn't seem to be enough, yet folks on both sides, I think, are very reluctant in terms of actually moving forward and committing ground troops.

CORNISH: And this matters because, of course, it seems like something that's going to come up in 2016. And this week, we had another several people jump into the race - Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders making it official in Burlington, Vt. You had former Senator Rick Santorum, former New York Governor George Pataki. I hear O'Malley is on the way. Lindsey Graham might announce in the coming week. In the last minute, Reihan, any of those do you think we should keep an eye on, right?

SALAM: Well, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley are interesting because, in a way, if you ask me, a candidate - a Democratic candidate who could really take off right now would be a candidate who speaks intelligently and in a compelling way about racial justice, given the Democratic coalition. And I don't think either of those candidates is well-placed to do that. On the Republican side, you know, Rick Santorum has a lot of problems, a lot of challenges, but he is talking about things like raising the minimum wage - an idea that, you know, while I might have objections to it, is actually pretty popular among GOP primary voters. And, actually, there's no one else who's kind of zag-ing while everyone else is zig-ing in this way. So, you know, he might wind up being relevant in the discussion. George Pataki, in contrast, is a guy who is endorsed by the teachers unions and other, you know, big public-sector unions. So I don't see him having much of a future in Republican politics.

CORNISH: That's all the time we have for now. But with many, many more announcements on the way, I hope we will get to talk more about it. Suzy Khimm, senior editor of New Republic, thank you.

KHIMM: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: And Reihan Salam, executive editor of National Review, thanks so much.

SALAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.