Lincoln Chafee launched his 2016 campaign with a perfect illustration of why it is so vitally important that the race for the Democratic nomination for the presidency be contested and vibrant, with lots of debates, and serious interchanges not just on questions of economic inequality—which the candidacy of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will spotlight and define—but on issues such as mass surveillance and privacy rights.
Chafee launched his candidacy several weeks ago with a takeaway statement about how “Our sacred Constitution requires a warrant before unreasonable searches, which includes our phone records. Let’s enforce that and while we’re at it, allow Edward Snowden to come home.”
This has remained a steady focus for the former Rhode Island senator and governor as he has framed a decidedly uphill challenge to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and the other contenders for the party’s nomination. Like all candidates, Chafee says he is in it to win it. But he also says that “the first goal” of his candidacy is to assure that a wider range of issues is “discussed within the Democratic Party.”
Just as Sanders has gone big on economic populism and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has gone big on immigration reform, Chafee has gone big on privacy rights in general and the Snowden case in particular.
After Congress moved to place some restrictions on the mass surveillance that Snowden exposed—as a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and National Security Agency contractor who two years ago revealed that the National Security Agency had been making records of nearly every phone call in the United States—Chafee tweeted: “Congratulations to Congress for standing tall for civil liberties! Now let’s bring Snowden home. He has done his time.”
In New Hampshire, on his first campaign swing as an announced candidate, Chafee expanded on his remarks about Snowden, who penned a June 4 opinion piece for The New York Times in which he recalled his role in “revealing that democratic governments had been monitoring the private activities of ordinary citizens who had done nothing wrong.”
“Within days, the United States government responded by bringing charges against me under World War I-era espionage laws. The journalists were advised by lawyers that they risked arrest or subpoena if they returned to the United States. Politicians raced to condemn our efforts as un-American, even treasonous,” wrote Snowden. “Privately, there were moments when I worried that we might have put our privileged lives at risk for nothing—that the public would react with indifference, or practiced cynicism, to the revelations.”
Now, however, Snowden argues that the United States and the world are saying “no” to mass surveillance and creating a new political dynamic:
Two years on, the difference is profound. In a single month, the N.S.A.’s invasive call-tracking program was declared unlawful by the courts and disowned by Congress. After a White House-appointed oversight board investigation found that this program had not stopped a single terrorist attack, even the president who once defended its propriety and criticized its disclosure has now ordered it terminated.
This is the power of an informed public.c
But will that new dynamic be reflected in our politics?
That remains to be seen. After all, Hillary Clinton is on record arguing with regard to Snowden that she “can never condone what he did. He stole millions of documents, and the great irony is the vast majority of those documents had nothing to do with civil liberties.”
On the issue of Snowden returning to the United States from Russia, Clinton has said, “If he wishes to return knowing he would be held accountable and also able to present a defense, that is his decision to make.”
Chafee is saying something very different.
In Lebanon, New Hampshire, following the recent congressional action to limit the NSA’s surveillance programs, the former senator told a crowd, “Now, let’s bring Snowden home.… He did the right thing.”
Clinton and Chafee disagree on a question of consequence—an issue that a lot of Americans understand, and about which a lot of Americans have opinions.
That’s the stuff of a fine, and necessary, debate.
The Democratic National Committee says there will be such a debate; in fact, there will be six debates. But that’s fewer debates than the Republican National Committee is planning. In addition, the DNC is demanding that candidates accept an “exclusivity” clause designed to prevent them from participating in debates that have not been organized by the DNC. Worst of all, the DNC still has not produced a debate schedule.
Clinton’s challengers have begun pushing for more debates and more flexible rules. They are right to do so. And Clinton would be wise to embrace proposals for a busier and more engaged debate schedule. Perhaps there are some risks involved. But Clinton well understands that front-runners who work too hard to avoid risks often end up losing their leads.
Instead of trying to calculate which candidate might be advantaged and which candidate might not be advantaged by adding debates and opening up the process, it’s better to simply recognize that the Democratic Party and America would benefit from more debates on edgier issues.
Like Lincoln Chafee’s suggestion that it is time to bring Edward Snowden home.