Will the Patriot Act Define 2016 for Democrats?

For Democrats, will the Patriot Act be to 2016 what the Iraq War was to 2008?

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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., holds up a copy of National Security Investigations and Prosecutions, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009, on Capitol Hill in Washington during the committee's hearing on the reauthorization of the Patriot Act .
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., holds up a copy of National Security Investigations and Prosecutions.

The 2016 presidential election will be the fourth such election since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the whole while with American troops still either fighting or maintaining a presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the early part of the 2004 Democratic presidential primary process, former Governor Howard Dean captured the attention of party loyalists and primary voters by correctly sensing a growing anger among the Democratic base towards those in Washington. In particular, he believed those who had voted to authorize Bush's invasion of Iraq, including primary rivals then-Senators John Kerry and John Edwards, were vulnerable.

While Dean did not win the nomination, his strategic positioning had a profound impact. At one point, in an effort to regain the left's favor, Kerry voted against an $87 billion funding measure for Iraq and Afghanistan operations, even though he had supported both interventions. It was then that he uttered the regrettable phrase that would haunt him the rest of his campaign: "I voted for it before I voted against it."

[See a Collection of Political Cartoons on the NSA.]

In the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, authorization of the Iraq war was again a demarcation point between the candidates. Back in 2002, prior to the Iraq invasion, then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama delivered a speech before an anti-war rally in Chicago announcing his opposition to the war. His early opposition would garner much praise and support from liberal activists during the primary process and draw a sharp contrast to then-Senators Clinton, Edwards, Biden and Dodd for their vote in 2002 to authorize the Iraq invasion. It forced many of them to question and later apologize for their vote. In 2012, Obama, being the candidate with the most consistent record opposing the war, was rewarded by the Democratic base and prevailed. 

In both the 2004 and 2008 primaries, neither Dean nor Obama were tied to any past inconsistent votes and were able to position themselves as Washington outsiders, capable from that vantage point of making the best decision regarding sending troops to war.  

Now, recent revelations of National Security Agency surveillance and the PRISM program have renewed outrage within the progressive wing of the Democratic Party over security matters – expressions of contempt for those who voted to authorize these broad uses of power and profound disappointment in the president over his administration's expansion of what he vigorously opposed as a candidate. The liberal base is now demanding a vote in Congress for a full repeal of the Patriot Act. 

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Americans Be Worried About the National Security Ageny's Data Collection?]

In 2016, the Patriot Act could very well be the new "Iraq War Vote" litmus test for the Democratic field as it speaks to a core principal for the left – the need for fierce protection of personal liberties. Two potential candidates, Clinton and Biden, are in the awkward positions of having to both defend their past votes authorizing the original Patriot Act, and their implicit support for the expansion of the program while serving in the Obama Administration. 

Will they defend these unpopular positions or begin to modify to appease the left? It will be instructive to watch how those potential candidates outside of Washington, like Governors Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., or Martin O'Malley, D-Md., respond. This could be their opening to begin garnering the passionate grassroots support necessary to win the nomination.

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