Rand Paul’s 12-hour, 56-minute filibuster captured a news cycle and prompted a bit of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington nostalgia, but what else can we take away from it? Here are five things, to start.
1. Rand Paul is good at transactional politics.
Contrary to Senator McCain’s grumbles, Senator Paul’s stand proved more than the fact that he’s good at rousing a rabble of “libertarian kids.” It showed Paul is good at being a Republican — better than his father was, for sure. Consider that Rand’s coalition of supporters includes not just traditional Republicans and tea-partiers but the full bouquet of libertarians, including the sort who beatified his father. Some in the latter camp were upset when the Kentuckian hewed to the GOP party line on its fleeting delay of Chuck Hagel’s confirmation, so convinced were they that Hagel’s benignity outweighed his bewilderment.
Paul struck a mildly defensive posture at the time, assuring the Israel skeptics and defense retrenchers in his base that he’d ultimately support Hagel and that he was keeping his powder dry for what he saw as the bigger fight: using the confirmation of John Brennan to the post of director of the Central Intelligence Agency to put the Obama administration’s feet to the fire on drones. Paul, of course, kept his word. He had been a good soldier in the losing effort on Hagel, and he used the maneuverability he thus acquired to take a stand on an issue that was important to him. Do you think any of the paleos and libertarians who shook their heads at Paul’s Hagel vote are still mad? As a political transaction, this was as smart as it gets.
2. He’s as much a strategist as an ideologue.
The rap on Paul the Younger when he came into office was that he was a kook, especially by the standards of the old-guard Senate gentility, which often operates at such a low ideological frequency that you could transmit its proceedings under water. Paul didn’t help his cause with his early cable-news stumble on the constitutional wisdom of civil-rights-era federal intervention — foolishly choosing to martyr himself to the exception instead of trying to make a case that it proves the rule. But since then Rand has picked his spots much better, and the filibuster was a case in point.
Paul is explicitly and implicitly skeptical, not just about this administration’s conduct of the War on Terror but about the very structure of that war. But there is not now a workable coalition in Washington that shares his skepticism. So Paul shrewdly narrowed his focus. Not to the War on Terror broadly. Not drone strikes. Not drone strikes against U.S. citizens abroad. Not drone strikes against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil who are in the active process of carrying out terrorist attacks. No, Paul asked a narrow — and, as it turns out, brutal — question. Does the president think he has the constitutional authority to assassinate a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil, without due process, if he deems that citizen a threat? By focusing on the archest case, Paul made the White House’s prior refusal to rule out such an authority look as extreme as it actually is. It spontaneously brought rank-and-file Republicans to the floor to help him, and it caused half of the progressives on Twitter to defend him and the other half to succumb to madness as Rand %&$*ing Paul established himself as the only reasonable man in the room.