The Sad Tale of the Senate's NSA-Battling Democrat

Why Rand Paul, and not embattled Mark Udall, has been able to capitalize on the spying backlash.

Mark Udall, a Democratic representative from Colorado, speaks on day four of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) at Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2008.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is on the cover of Time magazine this week, the title copy selling him to readers and supermarket checkout line impulse buyers as "the most interesting man in politics." Yesterday, Paul appeared on Bloomberg's "With All Due Respect" and got another respectful hearing, with a few chances to explain why he was able to reach out to voters who don't ever think of voting Republican. Previously, Politico had called him "the one-man think tank," Reason had called him the "most interesting man in the Senate" — you could go on. The point is that Rand Paul receives boffo coverage, and this has a lot to do with his decision in early 2013 to challenge the Obama administration on privacy and drone warfare.

Compare Paul's coverage to that afforded Colorado Senator Mark Udall. The Democrat is currently lagging behind Republican Representative Cory Gardner in polls, and more than a few reporters are already looking at Colorado as proof that "the war on women is falling flat." That's a story on it's own, worthy of a footnote,* but it's remarkable how little credit Udall's gotten — or, until recently, asked for — on civil liberties.

Where to start? At a Sept. 7 debate, when Gardner accused Udall of being an Obama puppet, Udall attempted to pivot to civil liberties.

"Congressman, let me tell you, the White House, when they look down the front lawn, the last person they want to see coming is me," said Udall. "I've challenged this White House."

The Gardner campaign and Republicans quietly deftly made Udall's answer look ludicrous. A camera set up at the debate (which wasn't televised) captured Gardner supporters hooting with laughter at the idea that Udall was independent from the White House. Udall had golfed with the president — obviously, the White House didn't fear him! CNN, among other outlets, mocked Udall for the first part of the answer without citing the actual content that followed.

Obviously Udall agreed with the White House most of the time, but anyone who covered the NSA knew that the senator was basically right about his break on that issue. In 2012, a year before Edward Snowden's leaks, Udall and his fellow Intel committee Democrat Ron Wyden asked the NSA how many Americans were being spied on under the powers granted by the 2008 FISA amendments. Wyden and Udall were generally ahead of Congress in challenging the government on the "secret law" being written to justify domestic spying. And after the Snowden revelations, Udall (and usually Wyden, who has more than a decade of seniority) kept on the administration for dissembling. This year, Udall put a hold on the Obama administration's nominee for CIA general counsel, and two months later he called for the CIA's director to resign.

Yet Udall and Wyden are not the "faces" of NSA criticism. Rand Paul is. Paul generally gets credit as the most aggressive opponent of domestic spying, and he's earned this by bringing aboard conservative groups and showing far more press savvy than the Democrats. Example: Udall and Wyden, whose Intel roles complicate the ways they can talk about the NSA and spying, did not join Paul in his class action lawsuit against the Obama administration. Udall almost did — his name was on an early draft of the suit — but he demurred. 

That probably hurt him politically. In the Denver Post's already-legendary endorsement of Gardner, the paper grudgingly acknowledged that Udall used "position on the Senate Intelligence Committee to crusade against spying activities." It just didn't see a substantive difference between that and what Gardner did, becoming "a co-sponsor last year of the USA Freedom Act, which the ACLU praised as 'real spying reform.'" Gardner's endorsement of a bill that wasn't going to pass was, in the Post's view, equal to Udall's years of advocacy from within Intel.

All of this explains why Udall's now on the air with an ad about civil liberties. He even cites the kind part of the DP editorial, the one that told voters to retire him.

Udall should have run that months ago. Its effectiveness is limited now some by its lateness, and by the weeks of mockery at the idea that Udall challenged the White House. He had a story to tell, but didn't tell it. And now it's someone else's story.

*Basically, Udall made the calculation that the ridiculously telegenic Gardner needed to be disqualified early, so he pounded him with ads about his support of a state and federal Personhood amendment, a pro-life envelope-pusher that would require state abortion and contraception law to reflect that legal life begins at conception. Gardner flip-flopped on the amendment and attempted to get to Udall's left by saying he, unlike Democrats, favored over-the-counter access to the pill.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.