So what did Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster accomplish? Heck, what was it even about? Well, in a nutshell, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Tenn., hit President Obama in the one place that Democrats can't defend—his drone policy. He didn't get everything right, but he he hit the "big picture" well enough to make drone policy a much bigger conversation piece than it had been. Moreover, Paul pulled the double feat of doing what potential 2016 hopefuls Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have failed to do thus far: look larger than the Republican Party.
What Rand Paul got right on drones
Paul’s larger, forest-for-the-trees aim is to tease out something from the Obama White House that it doesn’t like to give: answers about its drones policy.
This White House has turned out to have an itchy trigger finger where drones are concerned, as Slate's June 2012 map of drone strikes in Afghanistan more than accurately demonstrates. Moreover, the confidential memo uncovered by NBC's Michael Isikoff revealed how unsettlingly vague the language is to justify a kill. Attacks are allowable against “an associated force of al-Qaida,” whomever that may be, and may be provoked by “a broader concept of imminence,” whatever that may mean.
"I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan's nomination for the CIA I will speak until I can no longer speak,” Sen. Paul said as he began his filibuster. His larger purpose, however, is to question the incredibly vague language of the Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that gives any president an ability to pursue terrorists around the world and in the United States as they see fit.
As Steve Vladeck, a professor at American University College of Law, notes:
However responsibly the Obama administration has actually acted when it comes to targeted killings, however careful it has actually been in selecting targets and trying to minimize both false positives and collateral damage, there comes a point where the public has a right to not just take its word for it.
What Rand Paul got wrong on drones
Paul, however, did miss the trees for the forest. His point about drones is, well, drone-like focused on the idea of people chatting merrily in cafes until suddenly—BOOM!—no more café, no more merry chatting.
As former Bush Justice official Jack Goldsmith (who should not be confused as a Bush/Cheney apologist) writes:
Sen. Paul is painting a misleadingly very unattractive picture of the circumstances in which the United States uses drones abroad in words that will now be played around the world as credible statements of U.S. policy.
Even the Wall Street Journal chided Sen. Paul in an editorial Thursday to "calm down, senator."
During his filibuster tirade, Paul went as far to question whether actress Jane Fonda would become a target. "Are you just going to drop a Hellfire missile on Jane Fonda?" (Don't worry, she's fine.) And using her "Hanoi Jane" reputation as the peg to worry about the safety of Americans abroad who disagree with their government's actions is, as Sen. John McCain, R-Ari., said Thursday on the Senate floor: "Ridiculous. Completely ridiculous."
And what of 2016 and Obama-bashing?
Yes, 2016 and Obama-bashing were a factor. But how could they not be? Paul has visited Israel to get some much-needed foreign bonus points, and he’s visited potential New York donors to woo those who actually pay for campaigns. So, everything he does or says is going to have a 2016/anti-Obama hue about it, which is why sniping critics can’t just dismiss Paul’s filibuster like this is “Mystery Science Theater 2016.”
If anything, Wednesday’s filibuster shows that, for the time being, he looks a little more presidential than his Republican competition. Gov. Jeb Bush is still cleaning up the mess after his “path to citizenship” Triple Lindy flip-flop, and Sen. Marco Rubio is still having to make jokes (which he did during the filibuster) about drinking water after his sweaty State of the Union performance. Pardon the pun, but Rubio needs to stop going to the well on this one: He beats this dead horse any longer and the SPCA will come calling.
Oh, and it didn’t go unnoticed in the conservative media sphere that while #StandwithRand was burning up the hashtag world, other Republicans senators were (cue jarring music) having dinner with Obama!
”Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz tag team a Paul led filibuster while John McCain and Lindsey Graham have dinner with Barack Obama.” — Erick Erickson
Paul has just set himself up as a man who attacks the president on a program that is little understood by senators, let alone most Americans. Oh, and just a week before he and other 2016 hopefuls speak at CPAC. Not a bad trick to pull off.
So is he taking advantage of the situation? Sure. But married to some substance (or enough of it at any rate), that's exactly what politicians do.
As the editorial page editor of the Washington Examiner tweeted:
Sorry, Rubio fans, but this is a waaaay better launch of a presidential campaign.