Rand Paul’s 12-hour, 56-minute filibuster captured a news cycle and prompted a bit of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington nostalgia, but what else can we take away from it? Here are five things, to start.
Contrary to Senator McCain’s grumbles, Senator Paul’s stand proved more than the fact that he’s good at rousing a rabble of “libertarian kids.” It showed Paul is good at being a Republican — better than his father was, for sure. Consider that Rand’s coalition of supporters includes not just traditional Republicans and tea-partiers but the full bouquet of libertarians, including the sort who beatified his father. Some in the latter camp were upset when the Kentuckian hewed to the GOP party line on its fleeting delay of Chuck Hagel’s confirmation, so convinced were they that Hagel’s benignity outweighed his bewilderment.
Paul struck a mildly defensive posture at the time, assuring the Israel skeptics and defense retrenchers in his base that he’d ultimately support Hagel and that he was keeping his powder dry for what he saw as the bigger fight: using the confirmation of John Brennan to the post of director of the Central Intelligence Agency to put the Obama administration’s feet to the fire on drones. Paul, of course, kept his word. He had been a good soldier in the losing effort on Hagel, and he used the maneuverability he thus acquired to take a stand on an issue that was important to him. Do you think any of the paleos and libertarians who shook their heads at Paul’s Hagel vote are still mad? As a political transaction, this was as smart as it gets.
2. He’s as much a strategist as an ideologue.
The rap on Paul the Younger when he came into office was that he was a kook, especially by the standards of the old-guard Senate gentility, which often operates at such a low ideological frequency that you could transmit its proceedings under water. Paul didn’t help his cause with his early cable-news stumble on the constitutional wisdom of civil-rights-era federal intervention — foolishly choosing to martyr himself to the exception instead of trying to make a case that it proves the rule. But since then Rand has picked his spots much better, and the filibuster was a case in point.
Paul is explicitly and implicitly skeptical, not just about this administration’s conduct of the War on Terror but about the very structure of that war. But there is not now a workable coalition in Washington that shares his skepticism. So Paul shrewdly narrowed his focus. Not to the War on Terror broadly. Not drone strikes. Not drone strikes against U.S. citizens abroad. Not drone strikes against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil who are in the active process of carrying out terrorist attacks. No, Paul asked a narrow — and, as it turns out, brutal — question. Does the president think he has the constitutional authority to assassinate a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil, without due process, if he deems that citizen a threat? By focusing on the archest case, Paul made the White House’s prior refusal to rule out such an authority look as extreme as it actually is. It spontaneously brought rank-and-file Republicans to the floor to help him, and it caused half of the progressives on Twitter to defend him and the other half to succumb to madness as Rand %&$*ing Paul established himself as the only reasonable man in the room.
3. There is (maybe) a market for civil libertarians.
The transition from the Bush to the Obama administration established most elected Democrats as pure opportunists on civil liberties, as they went largely radio silent as Their Man amplified Bush-era war powers, expanded the scope and the intensity of covert “kinetic action,” and failed to shut down Gitmo. Let’s yield that there is a kind of cockeyed principle involved in the selective silence — that Democrats aren’t purebred hypocrites but actually do trust Obama more than they trusted Bush not to abuse his authority. Something like the mirror of that might be happening with Republicans. That is, they might be realizing — in part opportunistically, but in part sincerely — that even though the president is commander-in-chief, the prosecution of the War on Terror ought to be governed by the rule of law and not that of man. This is certainly the vibe you got from civil-libertarian and anti-war pundits on Twitter last night, who spoke hopefully of Paul’s filibuster as “changing the physics” of Washington or “expanding the scope of the possible” when it comes to foreign policy.
4. Paul has allies in the class of 2010 — and beyond.
Of course, even if it’s true that Republicans are interested in occupying a space dove-ward of the president and serving these traditionally underserved elements on the right, it will be a halting, messy process, translating the vibe of the Paul filibuster into either a policy program or a coalition that can win elections. But the roster of early supporters Paul drew to the Senate floor is telling. Not just Mike Lee and Ted Cruz — the Senate Republicans’ Federalist Society brain trust — but lunch-pail tea-partiers such as Pat Toomey and Ron Johnson and Mr. 2016 himself, Marco Rubio. The New Guys, and the antithesis of Senator McCain’s get-off-my-lawn hawkishness. The star power of these early adopters combined with the organic energy Paul brought to his filibuster (probably the longest such speech to stay on topic and not resort to phone-book-reading and the like) to goad others to the floor, including the Senate Republicans’ Nos. 1 and 2, Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn. Again, it’s not yet clear that they were one and all standing with Rand, but they were standing in his general vicinity.
5. Washington is still capable of (real) drama.
In an era of “manufactured crises” in which battles over governance and over spin take place in two distinct and causally isolated universes (see the remoteness of perception from reality on the sequester, for just the latest example), Rand Paul’s filibuster presented the greatest of rarities in Washington — the salutary political spectacle. It was a show, to be sure. But it was spontaneous (when Paul arrived at the Capitol on Wednesday, he didn’t even know the Brennan vote was on the docket) and self-sustaining. It drew even the marginally politically minded to watch C-SPAN in prime time. And it was effective.
When Rand Paul relieved himself to, well, relieve himself, we lived in a world in which the president refused to acknowledge a key limit on his war power. When Rand Paul arrived at the Capitol today, he did so with a letter from the attorney general that answered his question in terms as unequivocal as you’re likely to get from a government lawyer. Indeed, whether Rand’s stand changes the tenor of the foreign-policy debate or reverberates through the Republican party, it is perhaps most interesting because it worked.
— Daniel Foster is NRO’s news editor.