Rand Paul rising: Has filibuster made him US political star?

Some Republicans saw the filibuster performance by Sen. Rand Paul as a morale boost for the party. He aimed to spark a broader discussion about the possible domestic use of armed drones.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky leaves the floor of the Senate after his filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director on Capitol Hill in Washington, early Thursday. With his words the GOP senator blocked a planned vote on the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director.

Is Rand Paul now a rising national political star? It sure seems that’s possible following his 13-hour filibuster on the Senate floor.

With his words, the GOP senator from Kentucky blocked a planned vote on the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director. But Senator Paul’s real aim was to force a broader US discussion about the possible domestic use of armed drones. That’s a serious subject that draws interest from both sides of the aisle.

Paul’s still the longest of potential long shots in the nascent race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. His non-interventionist foreign-policy views are outside his party’s mainstream, and many Democrats consider his libertarian principles uncaring. But from Wednesday through the early hours of Thursday, he presented the (rare) picture of a politician willing to become physically uncomfortable in defense of core beliefs.

Perhaps that’s why possible 2016 rival Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida hurried over to give Paul a short break and express his support. He might have recognized a breakthrough moment when he saw one.

“By the time the 2016 Republican presidential race rolls around, the Paul filibuster will be a distant memory – even to the grassroots of the party," Washington Post political analysts Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan write on The Fix blog. "But, the motivation behind the filibuster – a combination of genuine conviction and a sense for the dramatic – will still burn strongly in Paul. It’s why we continue to believe no one should underestimate Paul’s ability to have a major impact on the 2016 race.”

Some Republicans saw Paul’s performance as a morale boost for the party. He remained largely on point for hours and talked fluently about what he judges to be the constitutional grounds for a belief that no US president can target an American citizen on US soil without due process.

Attorney General Eric Holder sent Paul a letter earlier this week, saying that under certain hypothetical circumstances a president might indeed have that power. Paul on the Senate floor expressed surprise at this administration position.

“The answer should be so easy. I cannot imagine that [President Obama] will not expressly come forward and say, no, I will not kill Americans on American soil. I can’t understand the president’s unwillingness to say he’s not going to kill noncombatants,” Paul said.

(If you want to read a short summary of the filibuster, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf has a good one here.)

As Paul continued to poke at the administration, some other Republican senators saw an opportunity to get licks in and rushed to support him.

“A lot of things that don’t usually happen in the United States Senate happened tonight, and wherever you stand on the merits, it was pretty cool to watch,” writes Daniel Foster on the conservative National Review’s The Corner blog.

But the fact is that not all Republicans agree with Paul on the substance. Even some of the senators who supported him on Wednesday night may fall into the nonsupport camp. The issue at stake involves questions of executive authority that would have been apropos for opponents of the Bush administration’s efforts against terror suspects, as well.

In some ways, Paul has hit on an issue that unites the libertarian wing of his party with Democratic liberals. It’s a sweet spot where the two ends of the political spectrum bend around in a circle and meet each other.

“Yesterday was quite a spectacle and brought legitimate questions about the scope of executive power to the fore – and the floor – in a way Americans haven’t seen in quite a while,” writes Steve Benen on the blog of liberal MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.

Some political observers of both partisan persuasions were also excited about Paul’s performance of a real, live, talking filibuster. In today’s Senate world, “filibuster” usually just means a threat to talk and talk, as allowed under chamber rules. Both sides accept the threat as reality and look to see if the majority has 60 votes for cloture on whatever issue is at hand.

Thus the liberal Ezra Klein at The Washington Post’s Wonkblog cheered Paul’s action as the highest purpose of a filibuster: a passionate minority slowing down the Senate to make its case to colleagues and the US at large.

“If more filibusters went like this, there’d be no reason to demand [filibuster] reform. And if there is reform, it needs to hold open the possibility for filibusters like this,” he writes.

But Paul’s long-day-into-night might not actually be a usual case, a few scholars note. The underlying issue, Mr. Brennan’s CIA nomination, is not an open question. Paul acknowledged that the administration has 60 votes for Brennan to assume the post. Plus, significant elements of the majority party are sympathetic to the arguments Paul was making. One Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, joined the talkathon.

“The majority seemed unfazed by giving up the day to Paul’s filibuster, perhaps because the rest of Washington was [shut down] for a pseudo-snow storm.... In short, [Wednesday’s] episode might not be a great test case for observing the potential consequences of reform,” writes George Washington University political scientist Sarah Binder.

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