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United States Of Outrage: NSA, IRS Overreaches Spark Bipartisan Ire

President Obama speaks at Mooresville Middle School in Mooresville, N.C., on Thursday.
Evan Vucci
President Obama speaks at Mooresville Middle School in Mooresville, N.C., on Thursday.

Even in an era of stark political polarization, there are still some issues that can draw Americans together and scramble the normal ideological fault lines.

Recent revelations about the Internal Revenue Service and the National Security Agency are among them.

Unlike the debates over Obamacare or President Obama himself, which tend to be more litmus tests for party affiliation than anything else, the reactions to reports about overreach by the Internal Revenue Service and the National Security Agency have brought normally warring partisans together.

When you get Sens. Rand Paul, the conservative-libertarian Kentucky Republican, and Ron Wyden, the progressive Oregon Democrat, sharing in outrage over the NSA surveillance programs, that's a noteworthy reshuffling of the political deck, even if proves fleeting.

Likewise, it's not too often that you get House Republicans and Democrats concurring on much of anything. But many agree on the wrongheadedness of the IRS's targeting the applications of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status though they may disagree in their suspicions of Obama administration involvement.

President Obama, who has made clear that he shares that bipartisan unhappiness over the IRS scandal, on Friday acknowledged this bipartisan anger over the NSA surveillance. Of course, even as he did so after a health care event in California, he seemed to suggest Republican motives might be less than pure:

"And I welcome this debate. And I think it's healthy for our democracy. I think it's a sign of maturity, because probably five years ago, six years ago, we might not have been having this debate. And I think it's interesting that there are some folks on the left, but also some folks on the right who are now worried about it who weren't very worried about it when it was a Republican president. I think that's good that we're having this discussion."

Not all the bipartisanship has been of the outrage variety. Some of it has been in support of the NSA. For instance, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat, and Saxby Chambliss, the Georgia Republican, defended the NSA's collection of phone-call data. The program that recently made headlines is basically the same one that made similar headlines during George W. Bush's presidency and is a useful counterterrorism tool, they said in its defense. Their reaction essentially was, "What's the big deal?"

In any event, what does this bipartisan anger over perceived or real overreach by the NSA and IRS tell us?

First, it's a reminder that both modern conservatism and liberalism are branches of a tree whose trunk is the respect for individual rights that emerged from the Western political tradition. While people on the right and left may often disagree on how to best guarantee those rights essential to the pursuit of happiness, i.e., whether a stronger or weaker central government is best, they seldom disagree on the sanctity of individual rights.

Second, this is a nation forged by skepticism and suspicion of government power. So it's in the genetic makeup of both American liberals and conservatives to react negatively when they perceive a line has been crossed in the government's exercise of power.

What may come of the current bipartisan ire is another matter. John Sides, a George Washington University political scientist, doesn't think much will change since he doesn't see as much bipartisan concern as he thinks would be needed to cause the NSA to dramatically shift its approach. In a post on The Monkey Cage blog, he wrote:

"What would create more of a public anxiety would be a concerted pushback from Congress against the NSA, and especially a bipartisan pushback. As I wrote regarding drone attacks, real public concern about civil liberties is most likely to arise when elected leaders express concern. But instead of a bipartisan pushback, I am seeing more evidence of a bipartisan shrug."

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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