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First Read: Rand Paul Gets an NSA Win — For Now

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter
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First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter

Rand Paul’s Sunday night rally

The Senate officially convened on Sunday evening for votes on the Patriot Act, but the session essentially served as a campaign rally for Rand Paul. The Kentucky senator gets to notch a win this morning after his blockade in the Senate halted the renewal of the National Security Agency’s authority to collect telephone metadata, starting at midnight last night. As a presidential candidate in need of grabbing attention, shoring up support from libertarian-leaning voters and expanding his fundraising base, it was a very successful night for him – and he’s sure to declare victory over an establishment that miscalculated the country’s mood on surveillance issues. Paul’s problem: His ultimate position isn’t going to win. The Senate is poised to pass the USA Freedom Act within a few days, which would maintain the metadata collection but move responsibility for the storage of the information to phone companies. That’s hardly a slam dunk for Team Paul.

But the fight’s not over yet

Yes, the USA Freedom Act strikes a middle ground that’s amenable to most Republicans and the Obama administration, and yes, it’s expected to pass later this week. But this fight ain’t over yet. It’s not yet clear that phone companies will be happy to comply with a law that’s going to require subpoenas and lots of legal debate; after all, their customers are the same public that’s dramatically shifted in its view of the balance between civil liberties and national security in the past decade or so. It’s good PR for the phone companies to fight for more clarification, citing the privacy rights of their consumers. Just because the headlines this week will show that the bill has passed won’t mean that everything’s hunky-dory here. There are a lot more details to work out on how this will work in the real world. Why wouldn't a telecom company be incentivized, at least as a marketing stunt, to publicly fight the government mandate on holding on to their customers’ metadata?

Enter Lindsey Graham

And speaking of Rand Paul, Sen. Lindsey Graham officially jumps into the presidential race this morning. Graham’s candidacy is hardly a subtle counterpoint to Paul’s libertarian push – it’s clear that this run is born primarily out of stopping Rand Paul and others from pushing the party even further away from the hawkishness that defines folks like Graham and John McCain. The South Carolina senator believes that no one is defending his foreign policy positions, and he’s certainly got the credentials and rhetorical skill to potentially kick Paul down a few notches. But a candidate whose greatest tool is the zinger one-liner could miss his best chance to use it if he doesn’t qualify for the GOP debates where he’d share a stage with his foil. Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham each need each other in their own way as a sparring partner, but will they both make it to a level playing field for the fight?

The other Graham factor is the Palmetto State

The other big aspect of the Graham candidacy is how it impacts South Carolina. Does it drive some candidates away? Does Graham specifically hurt someone like Jeb Bush who likely shares a similar establishment-like supporter base in the Palmetto State? Graham may not be mistaken for a front-runner any time soon, but he could have an outsized impact if only for how he scrambles the math in South Carolina.

If you have to say it…

If you complain in the New York Times that you’re having trouble fundraising, it’s a pretty transparent all-call to the donors who read the paper that they need to start opening their wallets. In the New York Times this weekend, a pretty blatant call for Hillary Clinton SuperPAC donors: “In planning sessions and one-on-one meetings with donors, Mr. Ickes, who is a Priorities USA board member, and other Clinton supporters are discussing how to raise as much as $300 million for Democratic outside groups… This ambitious goal will require the emergence of a new class of at least 20 Democratic donors who can give $5 million or even $10 million each.” Team Clinton wouldn’t be going public if they felt they were building the support they needed to compete against the GOP side, which Democrats argue has a deeper bench of politically-active billionaires willing to pick a horse and shell out big bucks. Also, don’t miss Maureen Dowd, who describes the pro-Hillary movement in Hollywood as a “forced march.” Hope n’ change, this ain’t.

Bernie Sanders pulls his punches again

One of us(!)questioned the Democratic presidential candidate over the weekend about Hillary Clinton’s past positions, and – once again – he didn’t launch a real attack on her. Asked if he takes Clinton at her word after her shifts on trade, same sex marriage, the Iraq War and other issues, Sanders would only say “I have known Hillary Clinton for 25 years. I have enormous respect for her, and I like her. And what I hope… is that the media will allow us to have a serious debate in this campaign on the enormous issues facing the American people.” By the way, be careful of believing the Clinton campaign’s professions that they’re losing sleep over Sanders’ strength. They’d much prefer a strong Sanders – whose success has a pretty defined ceiling – than a strong Martin O’Malley, who launched his campaign on Saturday.

A new Iowa poll

If you needed another data point on whether Clinton’s financial and news-cycle woes are hurting her with Democrats, here’s a new Iowa poll from Bloomberg Politics and the Des Moines Register. Clinton is the first choice for 57 percent of Democratic caucus-goers, UP a percentage point from January. Bottom line: what has the Acela corridor up in arms has NOT impacted her with Iowa Dems. The big change: Sanders has replaced Elizabeth Warren as the Clinton alternative, surging to 16 percent from just five percent early in the year. On the Republican side, Scott Walker leads among Iowa Republicans at 17 percent, while Rand Paul and Ben Carson weigh in at 10 percent apiece. Here’s the thing that amazes us with Walker’s lead – his name ID still isn’t at saturation, despite holding a lead in polls in the state all year. Almost a quarter of Iowa GOP caucus-goers still don’t know enough about him to form an opinion.

Washington mourns Beau Biden.

And finally today, a loss that transcends politics. On Saturday night, Vice President Joe Biden lost a child for the second time in his life. Beau Biden, who had served as the attorney general of Delaware and was poised to be the state’s likely future governor, died of terminal brain cancer on Saturday night. The vice president’s life has already been marked by tragedy; his Senate career literally began at the bedside of his two boys as they recovered from the devastating car accident that killed their mother and baby sister. Throughout his career, Joe Biden’s thoughtful remarks on the agony of losing a loved one have typically been overshadowed by his more frequent role as the butt of jokes for his chatty, sometimes over-cheerful persona. But with the death of Beau Biden, it’s worth remembering the grief that forged his father’s career, and the void left by his own too-early exit from public service.

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