How Republicans learned to hate the TSA all over again.

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Nov. 18 2010 12:01 PM

Don't Tread on My Junk

How Republicans learned to hate the TSA all over again.

A body scanner. Click  image to expand.
A body scanner

Janet Napolitano was just three months into her tenure as secretary of Homeland Security when Matt Drudge bestowed a nickname on her: "Big Sis." The nickname stuck, thanks to Drudge's perseverance. Since that first story in April 2009, the Big Sis brand has been trotted out for dozens of Napolitano stories, from the scary ("BIG SIS: Napolitano to Kill Spy-Satellite Program") to the silly ("BIG SIS: Napolitano enlists Girl Scouts in effort to combat hurricanes, pandemics, terror attacks") to—most important—the creepy sexual stuff about the Transportation Security Administration. In January 2010, Drudge linked to a story about the government acquiring body scanners by pressing the Caps-Lock key and breaking out a photo illustration of Napolitano eying a scan of a nude: "BIG SIS WANTS TO SEE UNDER YOUR CLOTHES."

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

Ten months later, there is a full-blown revolt against the TSA and body scanners (which are sold by a firm with the poetically unfortunate name of Rapiscan). The revolt will crest next Wednesday, with National Opt-Out Day on the busiest travel period of the year. The accidental guerilla heroico of the revolt is John Tyner, who refused a full-body scan at San Diego International Airport then refused to let TSA agents manually search him. "You touch my junk," he said, "and I'm going to have you arrested."

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What does this have to do with Matt Drudge? The Tyner Mutiny went viral because the Drudge Report gave it the blaring-siren treatment. And the site gave it the blaring-siren treatment because conservatives have been ready for a very long time to return to a familiar and comfortable opinion of Homeland Security: It must be stopped.

That opinion was in hibernation, then partial hibernation, for a long time. Before 9/11, the prevailing conservative/libertarian/Republican opinion of the national-security state—of any government effort to protect Americans at the point of a gun and the touch of a rubber glove—was mistrust. The second most common opinion was fear. And the return of those emotions is a lagging reaction to the fact that Republicans no longer have to toe the party line on homeland security. They can say what they think, which is that the state can't be trusted.

It's worth remembering that the idea of a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security came from the Democratic Party just after the 9/11 attacks. (Just after 9/11, President Bush created an Office of Homeland Security within the White House.) It wasn't until 2002 that the Republican Party latched on to the concept and took ownership of it. As they pushed DHS through the House, however, Republicans made concessions that demonstrated just how ambivalent they were about the idea of a massive new national-security bureaucracy. Plans for national ID cards and a system to inform on possible terrorists were killed by Republicans like then majority leader and current Tea Party icon Dick Armey. Certain homeland security proposals, he said, were "not consistent with a free society."

At the time, only 12 Republicans voted against the House bill creating DHS. Most Republican candidates used their support of "a strong DHS," which quickly became a byword for "being serious about terrorism," to clobber Democrats who wanted the new federal workers hired to staff the new department to be unionized. This was not something conservatives believed in deeply. It was a useful—and, if you ask Max Cleland, successful—campaign issue.

There were always critics of the strategy. They simply didn't have much pull while Bush was president. Angry criticism of the TSA, DHS, and the surveillance state came out of a rump of congressional Republicans, from think tanks and from talk radio hosts like Alex Jones and pundits like Andrew Napolitano. But none of this challenged Republicans' strategic thinking. The first victories of the conservative civil liberties crowd came in 2007 and 2008, when they successfully beat back a plan for a national ID card—technically, nationally compatible state IDs—that had been scrapped from the first DHS bill.

Tea Party activists like to date the backlash to big government to the 2008 passage of TARP. But the backlash against the TSA started a little earlier. According to Tom Blank, the deputy administrator of TSA in the post-9/11 years, the agency was always cognizant of how unpopular scanning could be.

"I used to sit around and look at these images, dial them back, and ask myself how do I take this to Capitol Hill and not be thrown out on my head?" said Blank. "When [Bush's second TSA administrator] Kip Hawley came in [in 2005], he changed that. He saw the politics of it and deep-sixed the program. He deep-sixed it. It got revived after the Christmas bomber."

The point about how full-body scanning got restarted is essential—it was the Obama administration picking up an idea that Republicans had cooled on. Republicans accused the administration of degrading security by dialing back war-on-terror prosecutions in the name of human rights; the response was a security measure that would affect all travelers randomly. So maybe the Drudge Report didn't really invent a backlash against Napolitano. The backlash was inevitable. Republican trust in a sprawling and invasive security apparatus was always precarious. Its collapse leaves the TSA and the Obama administration with yet another libertarian, anti-state riot on their hands.

They have the media, too, for what that's worth. Alex Altman's take on the "hysteria" in Time dismissed the backlash as "tailor-made for the Internet's ephemeral obsessions" and at odds with a Pew poll showing 81 percent of people accepting full-body scans. "Sometimes the screams of an aggrieved minority drowns out the rest of the public," said Altman, "and this may be one of those cases."

Which may be true. Or not. In 2009, the smart take on the rage against health-care reform was that it was ephemeral, tailor-made for the aggrieved minority, a bunch of anti-government yokels screaming about a policy they didn't understand. Yet that rage clearly lasted long enough to hurt the Democrats at the polls this month. And health care reform at least had a cheering section in the liberal press. That press isn't cheering on the TSA. Democrats aren't particularly fond of the way the TSA operates. Pilots aren't happy. In an age of right-wing backlashes to the state, the only surprise is that this took so long.

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