Rand Paul filibuster fallout: Are Democrats his real allies?

By taking on the White House over its drone policy and civil liberties, Rand Paul echoed concerns of liberal Democrats. But only one helped him during his filibuster, showing how tribal D.C. is.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, walks to a waiting vehicle as he leaves the Capitol after his filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director on Capitol Hill in Washington, early Thursday.

Who are Rand Paul’s real allies? That’s a question D.C. political types have been chewing over since the GOP senator from Kentucky's filibuster about his objections to the Obama administration’s drone policies last week.

In particular, Senator Paul wanted clarification about whether the White House thinks it has the power to target with a drone a US citizen within the territorial US who is not engaged in combat. (“No”, said Attorney General Eric Holder in a letter responding to Paul’s public query.) That’s a question about civil liberties that hits the sweet spot where the progressive left wing and the libertarian right meet.

The US ideological spectrum isn’t always a line. Sometimes it’s a circle. Thus Paul was hailed by one of the Tea Party’s favorite new lawmakers, conservative Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and liberal talk show host Rachel Maddow alike.

Yet only one Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, stood to help Paul during his hours of talking. All his other helpmeets were GOP, including many who support an expansive definition of executive authority when it comes to national security. What explains that?

In a word, partisanship, according to Georgetown University assistant professor of political science Hans Noel.

The proximate issue on the floor was the Obama administration’s nomination of counterterror adviser John Brennan to be director of the CIA.

“Liberals, especially those elected to office, have little to gain from blocking the president’s choice. Conservatives, even those who might have tolerated a drone program run by a conservative, have much to gain,” wrote Mr. Noel on the Mischiefs of Faction political science blog.

That does not mean that “partisanship” and “ideology” are synonyms, however. The antiwar left has been quiet since President Obama was elected but it still exists. The most common GOP criticism of Mr. Obama’s antiterror policies is that he is too soft, not too aggressive.

“It is convenient to think about ideology as a single liberal-to-conservative dimension.... But we would do better to understand the true variety within ideology more than we do. The drone program is just the sort of case that illuminates that variety,” writes Noel.

That said, is it possible that Paul could change the GOP’s mind on this issue? In other words, might the partisanship he sparked alter the very nature of Republican ideology?

Well, maybe. Over at The New York Times opinion page the conservative-leaning Ross Douthat has been arguing that the Paul filibuster presents an opportunity to widen the Republican conversation on national security.

That may be what Paul was really after last week. 

“Anyone who listened (and listened, and listened) to his remarks, and put them in the context of his recent speeches and votes and bridge-building, recognized that he was after something bigger: a reorientation of conservative foreign policy thinking away from hair-trigger hawkishness and absolute deference to executive power,” Douthat writes.

It’s possible that Paul has at least broadened the spectrum of permissible GOP national-security opinions. As the conservative Jennifer Rubin writes at her conservative Right Turn Washington Post blog, traditional GOP hawks such as Sen. John McCain have tried to dismiss Paul as someone who does not defend US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and a generally interventionist American foreign policy. But that may misread the opinions of US society at large.

“Paul’s ideological opponents on the right only made him appear bigger and more attractive by their cluelessness as to the war weariness and privacy and civil libertarian concerns to which some have rallied,” writes Rubin.

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