Republicans have been eager to push the Benghazi and IRS scandals as very serious, even impeachable, offenses. Now, presented with the news that the NSA has been collecting Americans' phone records and electronic communications as part of a sweeping surveillance program, GOP lawmakers seem to be shrugging their shoulders — or even defending President Obama.
Granted, there are some Republicans who are taking Obama to task. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) called the NSA's actions an "astounding assault on the Constitution," while Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) referred to it as "another example of government overreach."
Still, the usual attack dogs have been quiet. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who has been so vocal about the other scandals that his colleagues have told him to scale it back, hasn't condemned Obama over the NSA's actions.
House Speaker John Boehner noted that "the PATRIOT Act was passed with large bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate," and that he was "hopeful" that the administration would outline how it was using the powers given to him by Congress — not exactly a stinging condemnation.
Others outright supported the NSA dragnet. Karl Rove said the NSA's actions were essential to the war on terror. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) called it a valuable program that had "gathered significant information on bad guys."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) went as far as to attack Rand Paul for criticizing the White House:
I see the threat to the average American, radical Islam coming to our backyard trying to destroy our way of life. He sees the threat (from) the government that's trying to stop the attack. I'm more threatened by the radical Islamists than I am the government agencies who are trying to protect us. [Miami Herald]
Part of the reason Republicans have been so reluctant to criticize the administration's actions is because a majority of them voted to extend the Patriot Act in 2011, which provides the legal justification for the NSA's collection of phone records. Congress also passed the Protect America Act in 2007 and the FISA Amendment Acts in 2008, both of which expanded the executive branch's ability to collect electronic communications.
The most forceful condemnations of the White House are coming from Obama's own party.
"I’m very concerned that this is basically a continuation of the policies of the Bush administration and the abuses of the Patriot Act," Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) told Politico. "I’d like to see better out of this administration."
The conservative media has also been laying off the Obama administration. Contrast this statement from The New York Times editorial board — "Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive branch will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it" — with what The Wall Street Journal had to say:
Amid many real abuses of power, the political temptation will be to tie data-mining into a narrative about a government out of control. Such opportunism can only weaken our counterterror defenses and endanger the country. [Wall Street Journal]
Fox News is also taking it easy on the president. After news of the NSA data-mining broke, the focus at the cable channel remained on Benghazi and the IRS. That's a shame, says Salon's Alex Seitz-Wald, because the NSA program is something that critics of Big Government should be mad about:
This is why conservative scandal-mongers can’t have anything nice. When they’re handed a real scandal that should confirm all of their worst suspicions about government overreach, they fail to take the bait and fall back on a stale non-scandal that cable news has chewed over for months already. They know Benghazi is safe territory for them and that their viewers like it, but it’s too bad the most popular cable news network isn’t doing a better job of informing its viewers about legitimate Obama administration problems. [Salon]
If Republican lawmakers are keeping their criticism mild, and Fox News isn't covering it ad nauseam like Benghazi and the IRS, that leaves Obama's own party to hold him accountable. How is that going?
"With too few exceptions, Democrats try to defend the Obama administration for presiding over actions that would have caused them to scream bloody murder if they occurred under the Bush administration," writes The Daily Beast's John Avlon.
That means it's up to the GOP to generate outrage.
"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," writes New York's Jonathan Chait. "But maybe Republicans actually care about the policy enough not to do that."
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