Last Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul rose on the Senate floor to declare a filibuster and pledge he would not sit down until either he could speak no longer or got an answer to his question about Barack Obama’s war powers.
Does the president, Paul demanded to know, in the absence of an imminent threat, have the right to order U.S. citizens killed by drone strike on U.S. soil?
By the time he sat down, 13 hours later, Paul had advanced to the front rank of candidates for 2016, and established himself as a foreign policy leader whose views must be consulted equally with those of John McCain.
How did he pull this off?
First, Attorney General Eric Holder arrogantly refused to rule out the possibility that President Obama could order execution by drone-strike of U.S. citizens, even here in the United States.
When Rand demanded to know what Holder was talking about, all across America people tuned in.
Here was a deadly serious issue: Had we, in our determination to prosecute the war on terror ferociously, begun to sacrifice our constitutionalist rights?
Libertarians, conservatives and liberals have all grown alarmed at the steady expansion of drone attacks from the Af-Pak to Yemen and Somalia and Lord knows where else, and from bin Laden jihadists in Afghanistan to Islamist propagandists like Anwar al Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, both U.S. citizens, in Yemen.
Whom do we have a right to kill? Americans are asking. What are the borders of the battlefield upon which we may designate an individual an enemy and kill him without warning?
Has America become part of that battlefield? Paul asked.
After hours of speaking, Paul had attracted a vast audience on C-SPAN and Twitter. Soon, colleagues who do not share all of his libertarian views — Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas — came down to the floor to speak for Rand and give him time to rest on his feet.
To see these new Republicans standing by Rand Paul presented the image of a band of brothers standing up for principle. Rarely has this Republican Party looked better than it did on Wednesday.
Then to the well of the Senate marched Rand’s Kentucky colleague, the minority leader, Mitch McConnell, to bestow his benediction. It was “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Schmaltzy, perhaps, but in a cynical age, inspiriting.
What made Rand’s presentation so appealing was that he began it alone, inviting the mockery of the media. Second, it was done with simplicity and dignity, without histrionics or demagoguery.
Third, it was evident that a genuine principle of Rand’s philosophy was at stake. Finally, like his father Ron and Jimmy Stewart, Rand has a bumpkin quality that fairly drips honesty and sincerity.
Agree or disagree, it is hard not to like the guy.
But the play would have been incomplete without the foils.
Thursday morning, John McCain, fresh from putting on the feed bag with Barack at the Jefferson Hotel, where he exited flashing his thumbs-up on how wonderfully the dinner had gone, came to the floor to declare himself disgusted with Sen. Paul and to pronounce his filibuster “ridiculous.”
McCain was followed by Lindsey Graham, who lectured the senators who stood by Paul that he did not recall them being exercised about drone strikes when George W. Bush was president.
McCain and Graham both seemed deliberately to miss the point.
Paul was not attacking the use of drones against enemies on a battlefield. He wanted to know if Obama now regarded America as a battlefield, and if he regarded U.S. citizens as possible enemy combatants who may be targeted and killed without due process of law.
Paul’s victory was conceded when a letter arrived from Holder conceding that he and the president now agreed with Sen. Paul.
What Paul achieved in a half day of speaking from the Senate floor is astonishing. There is a new tent pole in the GOP that stands as tall as any of the rest.
McCain and Graham, who are routinely trotted out by Big Media to speak for the party — can they any longer claim to do so?
Last week, they seemed isolated. And, on the weekend, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy declared Paul’s performance “fantastic,” and backhanded the Republicans who attacked him.
Paul himself handled McCain’s insults well. “I treat Sen. McCain with respect,” he told Mike Huckabee. “I don’t think I always get the same in return.”
Henceforth, be the issue sending weapons to Syrian insurgents, or launching a war on Iran, the media will have to consult Sen. Paul, who can credibly claim to speak for a large segment of the GOP.
The hegemony of the neocons and the lockstep conformity of a vast a slice of the GOP that cost Reagan’s party its primacy during the Bush wars, seems to be coming to an end.