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Rand Paul and the Charisma of Principle



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A few thoughts to add to Dan Foster’s astute observations about the Rand Paul filibuster.

I was particularly struck by Rush Limbaugh’s heaping of praise upon Senator Paul:  

Nobody in the Republican party has dared take this president on. You did last night, and you’re alive today to talk about it. . . . You are, in certain ways, a hero to a lot of people today. . . . This was, to me, a seminal event last night that could change the direction that we are all heading — particularly in terms of educating and informing the American people about what actually is happening in their country.

I am a longtime Rush fan — the best thing about getting myself intentionally stuck in a series of epic traffic jams last week was the opportunity to listen to more talk radio than I usually do — but it is fair to say that Rush is probably not the first figure who leaps to mind when the question is civil liberties concerns of the sort Rand Paul raised in his filibuster. In the case of Williamson v. Krauthammer, Rush has traditionally been more on the Krauthammer side. But there were a great many conservatives, including many whose views on national security and terrorism more closely hew to the Bushian than the Paulite, greatly excited by the senator’s marathon sermon on liberty, constitutionalism, and the rule of law. Even some conservatives who reject Rand Paul’s views outright were a little bit pumped up by the performance.

This is a reminder that the tea-party tendency that helped carry Senator Paul to office is at least as much about seeking alternatives to the Republican establishment as resistance to Democratic statism. Senator Ted Cruz read a number of tweets on the Senate floor, which was a welcome nod to the 21st century, but he was politic in his selection of them: The villains of that particular discourse were not so much President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder as Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who was ruthlessly mocked, Senator Lindsey Graham, and, above all, Senator John McCain. The relationship between the conservative movement and the Republican party ensures that the GOP ranks are almost always at least partly in revolt, and the dissident element has found its new champions in the persons of Senator Paul, Senator Cruz, and Senator Toomey. Nobody has ever gained by underestimating Mitch McConnell, but the minority leader should be watching his back.

The Rand Paul for President movement is of course already under way, and I wish it weren’t. Senator Paul’s filibuster is a great demonstration of what the Senate is for: putting the brakes on things, slowing things down, forcing debate and discussion. Rand Paul is a great deal more useful to the cause of liberty as a senator of growing stature than he would be as the Howard Dean of the 2016 GOP primary. An incumbent senator enjoys a measure of political safety, and he is free to challenge orthodoxies and push envelopes, which is precisely where Senator Paul is most valuable. A presidential candidate has less room to maneuver. Unhappily, the cult of the presidency has grown so inescapable that even those who should be most immune to its allure — Constitution-minded, small-government, libertarian types — immediately dream of placing their legislative champions in the all-powerful executive. We need conservative presidents, but we also need conservative senators, representatives, judges and justices, governors, mayors, and school-board presidents. “Let Reagan be Reagan,” they once said; if you want to let Rand be Rand, the Senate probably is the best place for that.

The Left is a coalition of economic interest groups, while the Right is a coalition of philosophies — conservatives would call them “principles,” and progressives would call them “narrow ideologies,” but that is the difference. Conservatives swoon when a senator reads from Hayek; liberals swoon when somebody proposes a tax increase on a politically unpopular target. Senator Paul’s great success was in appealing to that strain of conservative idealism, calling out both the Obama administration and the Republican establishment, citing first principles, and drawing a line without making himself look like a crank or a clown. Senator Paul’s performance commanded respect from both Rush Limbaugh and Jon Stewart, if only because he treated an important subject importantly.

I think John Boehner and Mitch McConnell deserve better reputations than they enjoy, but they should keep in mind that the energized political movement behind Rand Paul is not the narrow and limited libertarian study group attached to Ron Paul, and that this movement, having been denied the chance to claim President Obama’s scalp in November, might settle for a few Republican congressional leaders instead. 



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