When news broke in late 2005 that the National Security Agency was eavesdropping without warrants -- surveillance that was authorized by President George W. Bush -- Democrats were not happy campers. More than six in 10 (61 percent) Democrats said the practice was "unacceptable" in a Washington Post-ABC News poll shortly after the story broke.
But Democrats have changed their tune in the wake of new disclosures that the NSA is tracking millions of phone records under President Obama. According to a new Post-Pew Research Center poll, fully 64 percent say the agency's latest program to access phone records is "acceptable," which is 27 percentage points higher than their tolerance for the NSA's probes when polled in 2006.
Republicans have shifted as well, but in a predictably different direction: 75 percent were OK with the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program in 2006, but a bare 52 percent majority says the NSA's current phone tracking program is acceptable.
By an 8-point gap, Democrats are now slightly more supportive than Republicans of allowing government surveillance of "everyone's e-mail and other online activities" if officials say it will curb terrorist attacks. It was Republicans who were 12 points more supportive of such broad provisions in a Pew Research survey asking the same question less than a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Partisans have even traded places on basic principles. In 2006, Republicans were roughly 30 points more apt than Democrats to prioritize investigating terrorist threats, "even if it intrudes on personal privacy." That disparity has been erased; 69 percent of Democrats in the new Post-Pew poll prioritize investigating terrorists, as do 62 percent of Republicans.
So why have partisans shifted so much? Changing presidents goes a long way to understanding the shifts. Supporting a program to mine telephone records requires a belief that the program won't be used abusively, entailing some level of trust. Democrats' deep distrust of Bush -- and Republicans' of Obama -- helps explain why support for a mass surveillance program would gyrate so much with a change in president.
The way forward may be a more partisan one as well. Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who are following the issue "very closely" are 30 percentage points less likely to say the NSA's tracking of phone records is acceptable than Republicans who are paying less attention. There is a comparatively small 7-point difference between Democrats paying more and less attention.
The lesson in all of this: Support for government surveillance depends very much on which party is in charge.
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"Re-election Challenge Could Complicate McConnell’s Balancing Act" -- John Harwood, New York Times
Scott Clement is a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.