Senator Rand Paul walks to a waiting vehicle as he leaves the Capitol after his filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director.
Like the roomful of monkeys who eventually write Hamlet if given long enough, or the broken clock that’s on time twice a day, sooner or later an otherwise dubious political figure will find his moral compass pointing true north if he keeps spinning in place. Or maybe it’s Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky who stays in one place as the world spins, with north finally swinging into his sights. Whatever the motive, whatever paranoia fuels the worldview that drives him, whatever withering scorn he invited yesterday from fellow Republicans who found themselves in the strange position of defending a Democratic president, Paul’s filibuster of the last 48 hours was an act of patriotism more authentic than we usually see from a right that so ostentatiously professes to love a country it refuses to understand. If nothing else, Paul returned to the tradition of the filibuster some semblance of the heroism that his minority party has left in shambles the last few years with no small assist from Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, the eminent hack who had the opportunity to rescue that tradition a couple of months back and declined. Thus we’re left with Paul as unlikely savior of not merely tradition but the filibuster’s intent, which is to provide a venue for the expression of lonely principles. Sometimes those principles are profound enough that stopping the country in its tracks to ponder them is worth the inconvenience, before such principles are flattened by the steamroller of national consensus.
You may believe that drones are legitimate weapons in the ongoing defense against an enemy that’s demonstrably enthusiastic about killing American civilians by the indiscriminate thousands. You may believe that the use of drones is preferable to risking the lives of American troops, and that the collateral damage of the former isn’t necessarily greater than that of the latter. You may believe that launching a drone missile on a target site, whether on foreign soil or domestic, isn’t different in principle than police injecting a tear-gas canister into a criminal’s lair. You may believe that when an American openly forsakes allegiance to his country and opts to join an overseas enemy, at the least he flirts with treason and places life and liberty in a fateful escrow from which they later may not be withdrawn. You may believe that Barack Obama is a pretty okay guy all around and disinclined to abuse the power of the drone or to employ it in a cavalier fashion, and that the questions being raised by some on the right about Obama were never raised by the same people about President George W. Bush, who started the drone program, as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham pointed out yesterday. You may believe that the prospect of our government using drones to eliminate alleged political foes within American borders is absurd or ridiculous, to use the words of John McCain in his excoriation of Paul on the Senate floor. You may believe, as Paul himself does, that John Brennan is qualified to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the consideration that was at the center of Paul’s filibuster.
You may not disagree with any of the above and still be glad that someone is asking the questions that Paul asked and raising the possibilities that Paul raised. Unlike the case of Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Defense Secretary, wherein Hagel was beset by inquiries about things such as the Benghazi tragedy that he had nothing to do with, the CIA practice of launching drone strikes is plainly relevant to Brennan’s nomination as is a discussion of government limits in a democracy—the great Paul preoccupation for better (such as this time) and worse (such as his belief that the civil-rights laws of the 1960s on behalf of individual liberty were also government overreaches). While Paul is given to flourishes of ideological bodice-ripping, and while there were moments in his 13-hour marathon that he got all Ayn Rand on our asses, and while his filibuster might legitimately be decried as a “stunt” (as some commentators described it), the fact is that Paul stuck to his argument albeit with the expected intellectual and rhetorical detours. A filibuster may be a stunt by its very nature, it may be grandstanding by its very definition, but Paul declined to, for instance, read into the congressional record the menu from the Jefferson Hotel where his colleagues were dining with the president even as Paul spoke. It’s even possible that the Adolf Hitler comparisons in which the right has been trading ever since Obama first was inaugurated really weren’t the comparisons that Paul insists they weren’t but were for the purposes of making a larger point, which the senator stated cogently when he pointed out that if we could trust presidents to always be on their best behavior, we wouldn’t need a constitution at all.
In a nearby Senate hearing room at virtually the same hour that Paul began his filibuster, demagogue-in-the-making Ted Cruz of Texas, the needle of his own compass randomly grazing accuracy purely by accident, put to the attorney general of the United States a question as perfectly reasonable as it was straightforward. Does the government have the right to use a drone on an American citizen on American soil who’s not engaged in an act of hostility against the country? The single-word answer was obvious to anyone unburdened by Eric Holder’s law degree and the ethical imagination that such higher learning apparently puts in deep freeze. It took Holder a full day to find that single word, his own moral compass apparently distracted before finally settling on north, otherwise known as “No” for short. That’s all I wanted to hear, Paul concluded, heading to the bathroom before voting for Brennan’s confirmation.