It’s often said that senators are at a real disadvantage running for president against candidates who’ve been governors. After all, governors run executive agencies and can easily exercise leadership. In the dysfunctional world of the Senate the past couple of decades, the opportunity to show leadership has taken a back seat to demagoguery.
That’s why Senator Rand Paul’s stand against a measure that would have extended the life of the National Security Agency’s phone-records dragnet is so unusual. Like his position or loathe it, Paul was tireless in standing up to most of his colleagues in blocking the extension of key elements of the Patriot Act. He even employed the filibuster tactics made famous by Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Last night, in a rare Sunday session, he forced Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to compromise and agree to pass a House-passed bill that will have phone companies, rather than the NSA, collect and store data on phone calls.
But the collegial traditions of the Senate were strained as McConnell went right after Paul and other NSA critics. Even though he has endorsed Paul, who is from his native Kentucky, for president, McConnell looked directly at Paul as he accused him and other NSA critics of engaging in a “campaign of demagoguery and disinformation” that was encouraged by the “illegal actions” of Edward Snowden.
Paul also became a real punching bag for other likely GOP presidential contenders. Former New York governor George Pataki accused Paul of “simply putting Americans at risk for a political reason. I think it’s wrong and I think it’s unfortunate.” New Jersey governor Chris Christie lumped Paul in with “misguided ideologues who have no real-world experience in fighting terrorism.” Paul was backed by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and given partial cover by Ben Carson, who said he didn’t support the filibuster but had real concerns over the NSA’s broad powers under the Patriot Act.
Paul will clearly be the focal point of the upcoming GOP presidential debates when the topic is foreign policy. No doubt he will continue to take his lumps. But his role in forcing changes in the NSA’s metadata program was a classic example of leadership. By taking on the majority leader of his own party — and his own state — Paul demonstrated both procedural skill and sheer guts. Unlike some other senators, he’s actually done something.