WASHINGTON -- At Pitzer College's commencement in California recently, former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett lamented the lack of candor in American life. Only a few political leaders seem to be trying to break through the "bullshit," he said, including a few Republicans.
One, Lovett said, was Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
In a Washington ballroom last week, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a leading civil liberties group, gave Paul a major award, even though he's been in town for a mere two years. Praise was bipartisan, led by fellow honoree, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. At Mitt Romney's high-powered retreat in Utah last weekend, Paul by all accounts got a hearty reception at an event that was arguably the first audition for GOP presidential contenders in 2016.
And all of that was before a flood of stories that are defining, for the first time, the scope and detail of the new American security state that has arisen in the decade since the 9/11 attacks. The Big Brother narrative about secret government collection and analysis of Big Data plays directly -- and powerfully -- into Paul's libertarian message. And it is further emboldening him as he develops plans for 2016.
Paul and his aides insist that he is focused on seeking reelection in Kentucky that year, but he, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are widely considered to be the most active among early national candidates.
Paul built his anti-establishment campaign in Kentucky in 2010 on tea party bedrock, expounding a message of a smaller role and reach for the federal government; radically lower and simpler taxes; abolition of federal departments and agencies; opposition to the Patriot Act; opposition to an increased federal role in education; a less intrusive IRS; questioning of the role of drones and wars in the Middle East; and opposition to Obama's Affordable Care Act.
The theme of distrust of government, so prevalent in 2010, has returned with a vengeance within parts of his own party and the tea party grassroots -- but also among millions of younger voters who either tend to lean toward the Democrats or are unaffiliated.
The latter like his position on the wars and drones, his skepticism about the criminalization of minor drug offenses, and now his declaration that the NSA call data collection and PRISM web surveillance are a "direct assault on the Constitution."
Leaders of both parties, from President Obama to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), are defending the vast surveillance and data storage scheme, made much easier to execute in the years since 9/11 by advances in computer, communications and software technology. With only limited modifications, Obama has accepted most of the basic architecture of a program launched by President George W. Bush. Democrats and Republicans alike are loath to dismantle it.
The system also draws support from the limitlessness of security logic, which says that you can never know or protect too much; the inevitable growth of new federal bureaucracies; and the profit motive of defense contractors, who have shifted sales to government from hardware to software. Those same contractors can and do contribute to candidates and lobby Congress in support of the controversial secret programs that are now coming to light.
Paul has vowed to counter this vast machinery by encouraging a class-action citizens' lawsuit. He hopes to help gather millions of plaintiffs -- and with it, millions of potential supporters for his campaign.
One of them could well be Edward Snowden, the whistleblower whose leaks to the media last week became a trumpet blast. Snowden was a supporter of Paul's father, Rep. Ron Paul, and it would come as no surprise if we were to discover that Snowden likes the son as well.
Paul sees Snowden as a hero. Will Republican primary voters see him that way? Rand Paul seems destined to find out the answer soon enough.