by Jordan Green
US Sen. Richard Burr touts his national security experience as he prepares for what looks to be a smooth reelection bid.
Richard Burr had considered retiring from the US Senate, but last December made the decision to seek a third term.
What swayed him, the Republican lawmaker told a group of conservative citizens at a Golden Corral luncheon in Winston-Salem on Monday, was the realization that he was one of only two people whose membership on the Senate Intelligence Committee predates Sept. 11, 2011. The other is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California.
“I realized that with what we were faced with in this world, if people who had the knowledge decided not to stay but to run, that that was sort of selling out the next generation,” he said.
As chairman of the intelligence committee, Burr has played an increasingly significant role in national affairs, from dealing with the fallout of National Security Administration whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about domestic surveillance to gauging the threat posed by the Islamic State. He recently returned from a whirlwind, two-day visit to four countries in the Middle East.
As North Carolina’s senior senator, Burr holds a stature that would seem to insulate him against the tumult of what promises to be a closely-fought election next year in 2016, with races for president and governor also on the ballot.
With evident relish, he handicapped the election, predicting that Republicans will retain control of the Senate while ticking off five key races across the country. He didn’t bother to mention his own race or either of his potential challengers. Deborah Ross, a former member of the state House, and Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey, both Democrats, have said they plan to run for the seat.
Burr said in an interview with Triad City Beat after the talk that he is undaunted by the prospect of running for re-election in a year when Democratic voters will be activated by the opportunity to vote in a presidential contest.
“I’ve actually run best every time I’ve been in a presidential election,” Burr said. “If people believe that you’re doing a good job, then the more people that turn out, the better you should do. If you’re not doing a good job, then it doesn’t matter what turnout is; you’re not going to get re-elected. So I actually look at this as an opportunity to grow my margin.”
After serving 10 years in the US House, Burr won his first race for US Senate against Democrat Erskine Bowles, in the seat once held by John Edwards, by a margin of 52.3 percent to 47.7 percent in 2004. Six years later, he expanded his percentage to 54.8 percent in a mid-term bout with Democratic challenger Elaine Marshall.
The relative security of Burr’s position also insulates him against the polarization driving politics in North Carolina and other battleground states. During the question-and-answer session of the luncheon on Monday, the senator passed up an opportunity to stoke fear about what might happen under a Hillary Clinton administration. He chose his words slowly and deliberately.
“I’ll just be real frank: The division in the country has become much more pronounced and I’m not sure that there is a comfortable middle for leaders to go to,” Burr said. “Someone will have to create that ground again because the country can’t continue like this. I don’t see her being the one to do that.”
He added: “I would not take it to the bank yet that she’s the nominee.”
During an exchange with a young voter in the audience, Burr acknowledged significant division in his party over the balance between security and liberty.
Pattie Curran, who is challenging US Rep. Virginia Foxx for the House seat Burr held from 1995 to 2004, assailed the National Security Administration’s domestic surveillance program as an violation of constitutional safeguards against warrantless searches in the same forum in June.
Burr steadfastly defended the program on Monday, arguing that if not for Snowden’s revelations “this program would still be ticking along, and Americans would be safer, and nobody’s privacy would have been breached.
“We collected telephone numbers — no content, just telephone numbers,” he continued. “And if we got the telephone numbers of a known terrorist in Syria, we would take that number and test it against every number in the database. If it hit on one, meaning, let’s say your telephone number was in there and it hit on your telephone number, then the NSA would go to court and ask a judge — say, ‘We’ve got reason to believe this person is trying to reach someone in America.’ And get a court order to go in and try to figure out who it is, number one, and what the conversation was about.”
While the senator has struck a moderate tone compared to some in his party, he criticized the Obama administration’s track record in Syria, as would be expected coming from a leader in the opposing party. Burr charged that the administration holds no strategy to defeat the Islamic State, and mocked Obama’s emphasis on containment, arguing that the United States needs project leadership to eliminate the threat.
“Leadership does not mean necessarily boots on the ground,” he said during the talk. “But I think everybody in the room knows that to provide leadership that is effective it means some element of the United States military has to be there to aid those countries that are committed to putting boots on the ground.”
Afterwards, he elaborated that he believes the United States needs to arm the Kurds and establish a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from attacks by the government of President Bashar al-Assad as a foundation for assembling a global military coalition to defeat the Islamic State.
Also consistent with majority sentiment his party, Burr reminded the conservative voters at the Golden Corral on Monday that he called for the suspension of the US refugee program, drawing applause. He said his reason for doing so was so that officials could lay out for the American people the process for vetting refugees before they are resettled.
He went on to say that it takes the average refugee 18 months to get into the United States and that from a national security standpoint he is far more concerned about the Visa waiver program.
“If I’m a radical in France and I’m a French citizen and I want to travel to the United States and commit a terrorist act, I’m just going to go the Visa waiver program,” Burr said. “If I’m not on the no-fly list and I’m not on the watch list, I can fly right into the United States, no questions asked.”
Rather than conclude his remarks with a swipe against President Obama, Burr took a rhetorical tack rare in Washington these days: He talked about working across the aisle with a member of the opposing party to solve a problem. Burr said he and Sen. Feinstein are looking at ways to tighten up the Visa waiver program to ensure “the individual flying is the individual that’s on the passport.” It will take time, he said, quickly adding that the last thing he and his Democratic counterpart want to do is hurt the US hospitality industry by making it more difficult for European tourists to visit.