Rand Paul and Washington's Night of Hypocrisy

Matthew Cooper

Rand Paul’s filibuster was surprising, compelling, and a perfect window into Washington’s hypocrisy.

Because it was so simply framed--the question of using drones to kill Americans on American soil--it was compelling in a way that, say, the Chuck Hagel filibuster--a knotty bundle of resentments and exaggerations--couldn’t be. The Kentucky Republican’s crusade also gained strength from being the old-timey kind of filibuster where senators actually talked at length and everyone speculated about the size of their bladder. (Paul gave in after about 13 hours, around 1 a.m.) It wasn’t the lazy obstructionism of recent years. 

Paul had tapped into something primal, not only on the right where the likes of Grover Norquist cheered him on, but also on the antiwar left where Code Pink, the plucky protesters best known for disrupting hearings and speeches weighed in. No wonder Republican senators, including Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, raced to the floor to join in. Paul had beaten McConnell's hand-picked candidate in the 2010 GOP primary, and McConnell is concerned about a primary challenge from the right so it's no surprise he Velcroed himself to the upstart.

And therein lies the first part of the hypocrisy. Republican senators who had embraced Cheneyism--enhanced interrogation, Guantanamo, rendition, military tribunals--last night evinced a touching, tender sympathy for civil liberties and due process. Conservative bloggers were quick to say there was no hypocrisy: Cheney-era policies were about enemy combatants, foreigners with fewer if any rights, as opposed to American citizens. But that doesn’t explain why the same conservatives had nothing to say for the rights of Bradley Manning, the Army soldier who transferred thousands of files to Wikileaks. Whether he’s a traitor or simply a well-intentioned whistle-blower gone awry, the point is that he was treated with questionable due process, and none of the Republicans who had hastily refashioned themselves as ACLU members had said a wit about it even though Manning is very much an American.

Greater hypocrisy lies with Democrats, who have expressed only modest interest in Paul’s cause. Where was Al Franken last night? Or Barbara Boxer? They could have joined Paul on the floor briefly, as did Democratic Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, all while pledging to vote for the president’s pick to head the CIA, John Brennan. But their voices were in absentia. 

The left and right Twittersphere lavished Paul with praise for his integrity (which, I guess, is what you could call it coming from a man who has questioned the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act and Medicare). But at a certain point, Paul refused to take yes for an answer. The CIA doesn’t operate the military drones, so holding up Brennan’s appointment didn’t make sense. And I suspect Paul didn’t want to hold up, say, a defense authorization, which would have not been as popular. Attorney General Eric Holder’s response wasn’t as absolutist as Paul wanted, but it did make it clear that drones were not going to whack people out of the blue in Los Angeles, Houston, and Bowling Green, Kentucky, as Paul cited last night in a nod to his home state. At a certain point, you have to take yes for an answer, and if you don’t, then you’re engaging in the kind of lamentable politics you seem to disdain.

The biggest blame, though, ought to go to President Obama, who campaigned on reversing Cheneyism and has prosecuted the wars of 9/11 while keeping Gitmo open and making the drone the symbol of his military policy. Did Obama really think he could whack Americans from the sky and not have a statute or a judicial mechanism to be a backstop against such awesome unilateral powers? I believe the president’s staff when they say he agonized over such killings. But thoughtfulness isn’t policy. The administration tossed about a legal rationale. But the white paper was a red herring. It made sense as far as it went but it was preposterously indifferent to the political climate in Washington and the country. All Obama had to do was to propose legislation with a kind of secret judicial review like the courts established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and he would have seemed wise and respectful toward a feisty Congress. Instead, the constitutional law professor had to be schooled by a Fed-hating, goldbug, libertarian doctor from Kentucky. Somewhere, Dick Cheney is laughing.