That title is, obviously, a bit of a misnomer, since Rand Paul didn't just have a "moment" yesterday on the Senate floor -- he had a whole bunch of them. Thirteen hours' worth, in fact. Senator Paul has a tool at his disposal that his father Ron never had, and yesterday he took that tool out of its box for the first time. Paul has been in the Senate for over two years now, but yesterday was the first time he staged a "talking filibuster."
I find Paul's filibuster fascinating for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the political theater aspect. There simply is no better theatrical stunt in Washington than the Senate's filibuster. Or, as we have to identify the old-school nature these days, a "talking" filibuster, since most cloture motions are now invisible and almost automatic.
Harry Reid missed a great opportunity a few months ago to force all filibusters to return to their roots -- complete with non-stop speechifyin' on the Senate floor. Reid did not support a movement to force all filibusterers to stand and deliver for hours on end. If he had, we would be seeing this spectacle on a weekly (if not daily) basis, which might awaken the public to how much Republicans are using what is supposed to be a rare tactical maneuver. There were actually two filibusters yesterday, one for a judicial nominee who has been waiting for an "up or down vote" since 2010. Only one of them made the news.
The one that did was Rand Paul's last stand against the use of armed drones to kill Americans on American soil. It was somewhat of an empty gesture aimed at the Justice Department and the White House, since Paul admitted very early on that his filibuster was going to ultimately fail because he "didn't have the votes" to sustain it. Also, no American citizen has ever been killed in such a fashion, and it's not all that likely to happen any time soon. Empty or not, however, it certainly spurred discussion in the chattering classes inside the Beltway, which is a measure of success on another level.
One Democrat joined in Paul's filibuster theatrics. Which is kind of an embarrassment for Democrats. Not because one guy crossed the aisle to support Paul, but because only one did so. Talking filibusters are rare, but what is almost unheard of these days is a bipartisan filibuster. And Rand Paul chose an issue which Democrats should really have supported.
Republicans and the right-wing media have a point when they cry "hypocrisy" on Democrats blithely allowing President Obama powers that they would have screamed bloody murder over if the president claiming them were named George W. Bush. Maybe everyone's just a little jaded and numb these days (it is now exactly ten years after the invasion of Iraq), and Obama's vice president is not out there using provocative "unitary executive" reasoning in public, but the Obama White House has indeed used similar "War on Terror" reasoning to either continue or even expand a lot of national security programs begun under Bush and Cheney. And the heart of these matters is not so much in their actual use as it is in the legal reasoning emanating from the Justice Department over why they are supposedly legal and constitutional. Remember John Yoo's memos on torture? What Paul was essentially focusing media attention on was a set of previously-secret memos on Obama's prosecution of armed-drone warfare. And I have to agree with Paul on one level -- these memos deserve a lot more attention and scrutiny than they've been getting.
Rand Paul, again like his father, is deeply concerned with constitutional issues. I can't fault him for that, although I certainly don't agree with all of his interpretations of our founding document. His filibuster was designed to gum up the works of the confirmation of a new director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the outfit that runs most of the drone operations. So it was indeed relevant to the business at hand.
But why weren't more Democrats on board with Paul yesterday? Picture the Bush White House making vague claims about their powers to kill Americans on American soil a few years back, and then picture how the Democrats would have howled. Which was noticeable yesterday by its absence. And please remember that what one president claims, all following presidents use as precedent -- the White House isn't going to be in Democratic hands forever.
The big question that remains, for me at least, is how often we'll see Rand Paul pull this stunt. He certainly is a man absolutely convinced of the righteousness of his own convictions, so it'd be easy to see him using the filibuster again on other subjects. Paul runs a risk of having filibuster stunts become commonplace if he goes too often to this well, but seeing as how this is the first time he's done so in over two years, perhaps that's too big a worry. If Rand Paul stood up and didn't stop talking every couple of weeks, soon the media would become jaded, and all the cocktail-party-circuit media talking heads would just begin to shrug and say "there he goes again." But I think Rand Paul is smart enough to avoid this fate.
His father Ron never had the chance to absolutely bring his house of Congress to a halt in such a fashion, so Ron never had to moderate his use of the tool. Rand has always painted himself as a man with a slightly-less-kooky version of his father's libertarianism, and filibustering even once a month would quickly relegate him to "crank" status. But, again, I think he's smart enough to know this -- especially if he is (as is widely suspected) seriously considering a run for the presidency in 2016.
Putting aside such speculation, and indeed putting aside Paul's issue and Democrats' response to it, I do have to say that I enjoyed watching Rand Paul's filibuster. But then I have always admitted a weakness for political theater in all its various forms, so call me biased if you must. America has always had a similar soft spot for the full-on Mr. Smith Goes To Washington old-style filibuster; even more so now that they have become so rare. Yesterday, Rand Paul taught us all a valuable lesson: this is what a filibuster is supposed to look like. This is supposed to be what a filibuster is all about. If Harry Reid had learned the poignancy of this lesson a few months ago, maybe the Senate would be presenting a much more accurate picture of the politics of filibustering right now. Maybe we would have had two real filibusters yesterday, and maybe Republicans would have had to get up and explain to America why they were holding up a judicial appointment for partisan reasons. That would have also been some interesting political theater to watch.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant