Last Wednesday evening I was checking up on some political blog sites when I kept noticing comments about Rand Paul’s filibuster on the Senate floor. Senate filibusters over the last few years have been procedural matters, where a party leader declares it’s going on so that a vote can be delayed, and everybody goes home to bed. The high drama of one man taking the floor to talk and talk until he’s talked out—literally dramatized by Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—is rare because it’s so demanding. Sen. Paul defied the lazy tactics of our day and took a stand the old-fashioned way.
It paid off. Any political figure who can get high-fives from Jon Stewart and Rush Limbaugh has scored an accomplishment. But what was it, exactly? On the Senate floor the next day, John McCain called it a “stunt,” thus pulling the roof down on his own head. But it was a stunt, and a very effective one.
The immediate purpose of the filibuster was to delay a vote on the confirmation of John Brennan as head of the CIA until the Senate received a simple answer to a simple question: Does the president have constitutional power to kill an American citizen on American soil without due process? Attorney General Eric Holder blew clouds of ambiguous smoke over the question in Senate hearings, piling on the words when it would have been easy to say, “No.” Why didn’t he? Possibly because he’s part of an administration in which clouds of ambiguous smoke are needed to obscure statements that conflict with deeds.
This is an administration, remember, that practices austerity by canceling $18,000 a week White House tours but not $1 million weekend vacations. More to the point of Sen. Paul’s point, it’s an administration that won’t rule out executing traitors on American soil without due process, but intends to grant due process to Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law in a civil court, with full legal representation.
In taking his stand, Paul performed an impressive physical feat, drew national attention to a single issue, stayed mostly on topic for his 13-hour marathon, and got his answer from the attorney general the very next day (in a word, “No”). It was a breath of fresh air blowing from a swamp of doublespeak. It’s just hard to say what it accomplished, aside from roughing up the administration a little.
Conservative critics say he could have chosen a better hill to die on, especially since Brennan was confirmed the next day and the constitutional issue may not be all that clear-cut anyway. Cynical critics claim that what the senator mainly accomplished was to position himself for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016. But there’s no need to rush to candidacy, especially when he’s serving such a useful role in the Senate.
Now and then somebody needs to, in William F. Buckley’s words, “stand athwart history yelling Stop!” That’s what Sen. Rand Paul did last week, and may this be only the beginning.