For those of you who have been busy or unplugged today, you’re missing a real show. Senator Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, took to the floor of the Senate at 11:47 AM, and began to filibuster the confirmation of John Brennan as Director of the CIA. The vote wasn’t necessarily a controversial one, before Paul began. The Senate Intelligence Committee approved the nomination on a 12-3 vote. But Paul’s beef wasn’t with Brennan. It was with President Obama and American drone attack policies.
Paul was pushed to filibuster by the release of a memo from General Eric Holder, detailing a justification for potentially using drone strikes to take out the enemy… even if it meant depriving a U.S. citizen of due process. The memo caused shockwaves when it was first released, but, with the Sequester in the spotlight, drones faded into the background. Paul, horrified by the idea that the President could so easily strip away Constitutional rights, decided to take a stand.
I have been watching all day – spellbound.
I am not a Rand Paul fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I can’t stop watching. When I first heard it was going on and tuned in, I was expecting to change the channel after a couple of minutes. I was anticipating the kind of vitriol that took the Benghazi attacks from tragedy to political circus – more partisan drivel during a time where Americans just want to see Congress do their job and stop playing games. I wondered whether he’d be reading from the Bible, the Constitution, the phone book, or some combination of all three to pass the time
Except Paul, for the first time since I became aware of him as a politician, was making a good amount of sense. His speech may be specifically targeting the contents of the now infamous drone memo, but his rhetoric has targeted American military and counter-terrorism polices as a whole. Yep, no reading of non-sequitur texts (unless you count Ted Cruz giving Paul a break by reading reactions from Twitter) here.
In fact, Paul has done a strikingly good job of walking the sometimes perilous line between eloquence and relateability.
His comments have been framed as an issue of Constitutional rights. His argument is intuitive- the Constitution guarantees us a right to trial as American citizens. The government shouldn’t be able to take that away by labeling someone a terrorist. But to describe his remarks in that fashion doesn’t quite do him justice. I say this begrudgingly, but frankly, Paul has been rather remarkable.
He spoke about the important differences between a Republic and Democracy- the significance of leadership versus mob rule. He pointed to Jim Crow laws as an instance where politicians were called to rise to the challenge of shaping a Republic instead of finding themselves beholden to the popular beliefs of the time. He’s sounded more like a philosopher at times than an Senator, and while that type of self-importance is typically nauseating, Paul has come off as endearing.
But beyond the surprisingly adept turn of phrase here and there, Paul’s speech has been engaging because he’s come across as (gasp!) sensible. If you follow Paul’s political antics at all, you know that this is not a common adjective in sentences where his name appears. Yet, here he was, putting an issue that can seem very abstract into terms anyone might be able to identify with. He talked about Kent State, and wondered aloud about whether we’ll just send in the drones the next time we see surges of American protest. He rattled off circumstances that might trigger concerns unduly, and the consequences that could follow. He proselytized on the consequences of standing by as rights eroded in the name of “security.”
To Paul’s credit, it does seem odd to me that the drone policies haven’t drawn more ire from the public. These types of actions had people lighting their hair on fire during the Bush era. And yet, as Paul himself noted, since Obama took office, we have the NDAA of last year, the Tresspass Bill, these memos… and crickets in comparison from former advocates.
I was speaking with a friend this afternoon on the subject, and began to ponder if it might be an issue with Obama himself. After all, it’s sort of hard to square the image of a progressive champion of civil rights for same-sex couples who pushed through universal health care with that of a President who has greatly extended Presidential, military and law enforcement power. Maybe the cognitive dissonance is just too much. Either way, Paul is intent on making people deal with that, and it’s been electrifying to watch.
It’s also an important conversation. Yes, American rights are important. Yes, it would be a bad thing if those rights were infringed upon. But let’s also talk about drone use in general. We live in a world where the development of technology vastly outpaces our ability to think critically about its applications. By the time we get around to having the conversation, we’re usually already facing down a series of unintended consequences. We’re unlikely to be done fighting in the Middle East and elsewhere anytime soon, which means the time to ask questions about what we’re comfortable with is now, not after we add another 1000 lives lost to the growing drone body count overseas.
And on a broader note, let’s talk about how comfortable we are with American policy decisions as a whole with the same kind of gravitas we’re witnessing here. Paul noted the ambiguity of the term “enemy combatant” and the fact that we consider any male over a certain age a potential enemy in conflict. Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about the NDAA allowing indefinite detention of American citizens. Let’s talk about the Trespass Bill that severely restricted the ability of Americans to stage protests that target politicians. Let’s talk about how we really feel with Presidential power being continuously expanded, even if we agree for the temporary reasons.
Let’s have a few thoughtful, meaningful conversations about how policies shape our world, instead of quibbling like teeny boppers. Is that so much to ask?
But let’s be real. Paul is politician. As glad as I am that people are now paying attention to this issue, it’s also really smart politics for him to take this stand at this moment. His request is very simple: he wants a statement from the White House indicating that they never have, nor will they ever, use drone strikes against Americans in a deprivation of their Constitutional rights. He wants them to say, “I cannot just decide to kill an American on American soil.” That doesn’t seem like a very absurd request, particularly given the recency of the drone memo. It also doesn’t require any official policy actions, so it’s just about making a decision and polishing the language.
The White House is not returning calls. Color me surprised.
If the White House complies, this is a pretty big perceptive loss. They will have been bullied into making a statement by the Tea Party at a time where they need all the capital they can get in the Sequester battles. If they do nothing, they look unreasonable. It’s just such a simple request, and the framing of the topic as a black and white issue of civil rights doesn’t help with their image issues. Simple, but brilliant. Paul’s past comments may have earned him a reputation as a sometimes ignorant windbag, but you’ve got to admire the strategic excellence in play here.
Still, if we’re being honest, I think part of the reason I’ve been so engrossed is that it’s quite the romantic idea. A politician puts aside party beliefs (Republicans putting restrictions on the military?!) in order to take a stand for civil rights. It’s been eight hours now, and for a political junkie like me, it’s hard not to think wistfully about things like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Sorkin’s masterful episode of The West Wing, The Stackhouse Filibuster. In an era of bullshit politics, it’s hard not to hope that there are still politicians willing to fight the good fight on our behalf.
I want Paul to keep going. I want him to make us ask questions that make us uncomfortable. I want him to deliver a swift kick in the ass to career politicians who have never spurred such an important discussion. I want him to shatter records on duration of filibusters, because Strom Thurmond currently holds the record after standing against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and I’d love for a more admirable end to take its place in the history books. I want to believe that it’s still possible for politicians to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.
But most importantly, I want us to take a minute and think about what Rand Paul is doing. It can be easy to get jaded with American politics, but here’s a guy who believes so strongly in the Constitution that he’s been railing on our behalf for eight hours. This was supposed to be a pretty simple confirmation vote. Congress is already in the doghouse over their inaction on the sequester. Paul took a major risk by taking a major stand, but he did it because it’s his job, he loves his country, and he cares about the people in it. Paul would probably never get my vote, but after today? He’s certainly got my respect.
Alright, it’s time to tune in again. I suggest you do the same.