Maybe you agree with Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) civil liberties arguments; maybe you don’t. Perhaps you see him as an ideal messenger for his message; perhaps you notice that he’s a strange conspiracy theorist who talks a little too often about Hitler and believes civil liberties end when a woman wants control of her own reproductive freedoms.
Regardless, yesterday was quite a spectacle and brought legitimate questions about the scope of executive power to the fore – and the floor – in a way Americans haven’t seen in quite a while.
A small group of Republicans, led by Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, stalled the Senate on Wednesday by waging a nearly 13-hour old-school, speak-until-you-can-speak-no-more filibuster over the government’s use of lethal drone strikes — forcing the Senate to delay the expected confirmation of John O. Brennan to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.
Mr. Paul, who opposes Mr. Brennan’s nomination, followed through on his plan to filibuster the confirmation of President Obama’s nominee after receiving a letter this month from Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. that refused to rule out the use of drone strikes within the United States in “extraordinary circumstances” like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
On Wednesday, Mr. Paul did exactly as promised, taking to the Senate floor shortly before noon and holding forth for 12 hours and 52 minutes.
The Kentucky Republican gave up shortly before 1 a.m., obliquely referencing the need to go to the bathroom.
As Paul’s speech garnered more attention as the day progressed, those offering varying degrees of support seemed to break into a couple of contingents. Some were less concerned with Paul’s message and more impressed with Paul’s method – it’s become exceedingly rare for senators to take the Senate floor and hold it for a prolonged period, and yesterday offered an opportunity to see a member literally take a stand.
Filibusters are supposed to be difficult, which made yesterday’s display a refreshing change of pace. It was not at all uncommon for even Paul critics to watch his endurance test and say, “Good for him.”
Then there were those who were sympathetic to Paul’s policy arguments, and it’s at this point when the divisions become a little more complex.
For the record, I don’t question the senator’s sincerity in the slightest, and I believe Paul would be raising the same questions and concerns if a member of his own party were in the White House. The same is true of Democrats like Ron Wyden of Oregon, who talked to Rachel last night, and probably even other Republicans like Mike Lee of Utah.
But as Paul’s allies grew throughout the day, it was hard not to wonder whether at least some of his new-found friends endorsed him on the substance or whether “Stand with Rand” had become a temporary fad on the right, driven by Republicans who were simply happy to see President Obama’s national security agenda facing criticism, even if they happen to agree with President Obama’s national security agenda.
Were GOP senators like Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey rallying to Paul’s defense out of anything but opportunistic instincts? If there were an up-or-down vote on executive power and the appropriate scope of the national security state in combating terrorism, would they vote with Paul?
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Paul’s fellow Kentucky Republican, once said the Casey Anthony trial proved that terrorist suspects cannot and should not be tried in U.S. courts – and yet, there he was last night, standing with Rand, too. Is it unreasonable to wonder how much of this had to do with his re-election fears?
Adam Serwer noted that four of the senators who joined Paul yesterday “voted against a ban on indefinite detention of US citizens.” Are we to believe they’ve had a change of heart or is it more likely that they just wanted to be part of an anti-Obama demonstration that was causing a stir among conservative activists?
Put it this way: if Paul’s remarks and tactics were used by a Democrat in 2004, how many of these Republicans would be happy to call him or her a “fifth columnist”?
There’s room for a real debate about the balance between civil liberties and national security, and if Paul helps spark that conversation, I’d be delighted. But I’ll be eager to know just how much yesterday’s spectacle changed minds and how much of it was about putting on a show.