06/15/2012 12:15 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

Newt and Rick Were Right: This Is the Most Important Election in a Generation -- for Civil Liberties

Failed GOP presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were right about one thing: this is the most important presidential election in a generation. Each said this more than once last winter.

They were absolutely right, but not for the reasons they believe. The 2012 election is the most important election in a generation for civil liberties. The November outcome may determine the fate of fundamental rights for another generation.

The views dominating the Republican Party today go beyond the beliefs of individual leaders. The party is beholden to a toxic brew of religious fundamentalists, the Tea Party, and wealthy businessmen. Across the country the GOP is waging a war on women (including against Planned Parenthood) and a campaign against voting rights. Enforcement of civil rights laws protecting people of color and others will be in jeopardy if they gain power. The rights of organized labor are already under siege in the states. On national security, they are hostile to constitutional limits on presidential power. At one early GOP debate, Ron Paul was the only one to oppose the use of torture. And do we even need to mention the future of the Supreme Court?

With enough bottles of wine, we could have a long debate some evening about whether the 2012 election represents a greater threat to civil liberties than Richard Nixon in 1968, or Ronald Reagan in 1980, or George W. Bush in 2000. Future historians will sort it out, but for now I nominate 2012.

The election poses a dilemma for civil libertarians. Many are very unhappy with Obama, but worry about publicly criticizing him. While he has been very good on some civil liberties issues, he has been weak on others and absolutely dreadful on national security.

Obama raised the hopes of civil libertarians in the 2008 election campaign by seeming to promise an end to the abuses of the Bush administration: torture, secrecy, unprecedented claims of presidential power, aggressive government support for religion, the politicization of the Justice Department, and more.

On his first days in office, Obama fulfilled some of that promise by banning torture, closing secret CIA prisons, and promising to close the military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. Hope soon turned to dismay, however, as Obama embraced most of the Bush anti-terrorism policies and added some disturbing new elements to it.

He has defended the noxious state secrets doctrine, maintained military commissions (albeit somewhat reformed) for suspected terrorists, maintained limits on habeas corpus, and never repudiated extraordinary renditions by the CIA. (I give Obama a pass on Guantanamo Bay because Congress blocked any possibility of closing it.) More seriously, the administration has embraced what the ACLU report has called the "legal architecture" of the Bush war on terrorism. Finally, Obama's policy of targeted killings and his enthusiasm for drones raise alarming questions about presidential war powers.

Obama has also been disappointing on domestic rights issues. Although good on women's issues, he refuses to call GOP attacks a "war on women." He is deeply ambivalent about discussing race openly, has delivered little for the African American community, and has not vigorously defended the rights of labor.

Obama's shortcomings, however, pale by comparison with the agenda of today's Republican Party, and this election poses a greater threat to our rights than was the case in 1968, 1980 and 2000. Civil libertarians should listen at least this once to Newt and Rick: this is the most important election in a generation.