Jacob Heilbrunn

Who Killed the Patriot Act?

The Patriot Act failed to pass the House, thanks to some recalcitrant Tea Party members who refused to vote for it. It was supposed to be put on a fast track that required a two-thirds majority. House members, who are usually easily rolled, finally showed a little gumption by rebelling. The vote suggests that the GOP will have increasing difficulties with the Tea Party whose anti-government credo isn't just rhetoric. No doubt the Patriot Act will be muscled through. But the vote has symbolic importance.

It should have been an easy vote. But it wasn't. As the National Journal put it,"Deserting and embarrassing their GOP House leadership, 26 Republicans—including several members of the Tea Party Caucus—bolted Tuesday night to join Democrats in a surprise rejection of a centerpiece of Bush-era powers to fight terrorism that curbed American civil liberties." The Patriot Act is one of those anti-terrorism measures, all too common in the age of the Transportation Security Agency and the Homeland Security Department and a CIA that seem to get caught napping again and again, that provides the illusion but not the substance of security. What's more, the very name of the act is itself repugnant, suggesting that anyone who would vote against it is unpatriotic. They aren't. They are, in fact, the true patriots.

One thing the vote suggests is that it will be more difficult for the GOP to demagogue national security as it did during the George W. Bush era. Bush used the Patriot Act as a club to bash Democrats as soft on fighting terrorism. If you think that the government should be allowed to roam through your medical and library records, and, furthermore, that this will help stop terrorists in their tracks, then I suppose the failure of the House to renew the legislation will come as a blow. But the 26 Republicans who voted against reauthorization deserve praise. The Patriot Act, which President Obama is cravenly supporting, represents a flagrant intrusion on the civil liberties of Americans. Adam Serwer argues in the Washington Post that it wasn't really a vote en masse by Tea Party members against the Patriot Act.

Which is why it's fair to wonder if this vote doesn't presage more hiccups for the GOP. The fact is that on defense spending the Tea Party represents a hope that big government can be slashed in an area that has traditionally been regarded as sacrosanct by conservatives. But their conservatism in name only. A true conservative seeks to conserve. There is no reason that the Pentagon should be exempt from worries about the budget deficit and big government.

The question for the GOP, then, will be whether it can fully emancipate itself from the Bush legacy in the next two years or whether it will cling to it. Reinventing the party would require a wholesale makeover that has only partially begun. The GOP has rhetorically shed the profligate approach to budgets that epitomized Bush. But it will have to demonstrate that it is doing so in deed as well. Otherwise, it will simply be further contributing to another kind of inflation--verbal--that continually afflicts Congress.