Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) catapulted out of his 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination for CIA chief as a world-changing politician, the new conscience of his party, and a Republican that nonpartisan progressives should love for his defense of our Fifth Amendment rights. (For those who don’t remember their civics classes, the Fifth Amendment includes the right to not be murdered at the executive branch’s sole discretion, which was the major topic of Paul’s marathon presentation last week.)
Paul is center stage now. If he wants to extend his time in the limelight and increase his star power, he needs to play act two and beyond with the same unpredictable political intelligence he showed in his filibuster. The freshman senator has (at least) three problem areas to navigate to extend his new status as a leading national politician and leading 2016 presidential candidate.
1. Democrats and Independents.
As I wrote about Paul last month for the New York Times:
“There’s a whole swath of people not getting adequate attention from Republicans or Democrats,” Senator Paul told me….These are independent voters who want to seriously cut government spending the way the Tea Party faction does but who also want a “foreign policy more of defense and less offense,” as Senator Paul put it, and a “more socially tolerant attitude.”…. “If we are ever going to win in California again, or Washington, we need someone who is a libertarian Republican,” Senator Paul told me.
Paul has lately written op-eds back in Kentucky recalling the Republican Party’s legacy as the party of civil rights for minorities. He told me in February that he intends to do serious outreach to black and Hispanic voters (the Romney campaign claimed only 27 percent of the Hispanic and 7 percent of the black vote). He used his Tea Party-sponsored response to Obama’s State of the Union talk to talk sense on immigration. “We must be the party that embraces the immigrant who wants to come to America for a better future," he said. "We must be the party who sees immigrants as assets, not liabilities. We must be the party that says, 'If you want to work, if you want to become an American, we welcome you.'” He told Politico, “We need to figure out how to appeal to the blue-collar voters that voted — that were Democrats that voted for Reagan and I think are drifting back [to the Democrats] because they see us as the party of the wealthy." Paul is very conscious that he needs to widen his appeal beyond an already-existing red-state base.
Paul may have the ACLU’s love now, but how many voters does the ACLU really command? Americans don’t vote in substantial numbers to support strict constitutionalism. Presidential drone assassinations were no burning concern of the American people before Paul’s filibuster. That’s why it was so inspiring: It arose from a curious and unique passion, one that was clearly not politics as usual. The kind of politicians Democrats tend to vote for wanted nothing to do with what they saw as Paul’s annoying stunt.
Superficial respect for the concerns of the ACLU is part of an elite Democratic zeitgeist. But when most Democrats and progressives think of Rand Paul, it won't involve the Fifth Amendment or endless wars at home and abroad. They will think about abortion, a refusal to raise taxes on the rich, and neglecting what they see as government's duty to take care of people. Opposing crony capitalism is nice enough, but disaffected Democrats see the GOP as the “party of the wealthy” because of its refusal to raise taxes on rich people. The libertarian educational project needs to make more progress before many independent-leaning voters will stop believing that that the government must penalize the rich to help the less-well-off. If and when Paul switches from a refreshing outlier or libertarian maverick to becoming the GOP standard-bearer, any progressive support will likely disappear.
Paul is doing the best he can to appeal beyond a core libertarian or Republican base. Yet it seems unlikely that any amount of civil liberties, peace, or opposition to crony capitalism will satisfy most independents or Democrats over the longer haul. Their visions of government’s purpose are just too antithetical to Paul’s.
Paul's libertarianism doesn't just create a gap between him and Democrats and independents. It causes problems within his own party. To be sure, Paul got a surprising amount of support from his Republican colleagues during the filibuster. But the big surge came only after hour three, and only after the filibuster's popularity was obvious. The support may have been opportunistic, aimed at slapping down Obama, and limited to the narrowest part of Paul’s concerns. But it does matter that other senators saw standing with Rand as a political plus.
Paul went beyond civil liberties as the day went on, and started ranging into the principled libertarian "extremism" that had gotten him into trouble back in 2010, when he criticized civil rights legislation for redefining private and public spaces. As the filibuster wore on, Paul pushed into territory where most of his Republican colleagues would be loath to follow. He conjured up some serious libertarian juju—like that we are not a democracy and that that’s a good thing; that the Lochner decision was good because it restricted majority power in the name of 14th Amendment rights; he namedropped specifically libertarian heroes such as Hayek (for the rule of law) and Lysander Spooner (for his abolitionism, though not his belief that the Constitution doesn’t mean we have any contractual obligation to obey the state).
But Paul undoubtedly remembers how tough it is to be in the national spotlight and to constantly be called on to defend the least popular liberatarian positions and to play the role of the great non-compromiser. It's wearying to insist on absolute fidelity to principles and to never back down. This likely explains the disappointing denouement to the filibuster, which was Paul's quickly taking “no” for an answer from Attorney General Eric Holder.
Holder sent a letter after the filibuster dutifully claiming that the president lacks “the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil." Yet given the looseness of what it means to be engaged in combat, Holder's response hasn’t satisfied many libertarians.
Paul acknowledged in a Washington Post op-ed that Holder’s answer was flawed (“the administration took too long, and parsed too many words and phrases, to instill confidence in its willingness or ability to protect our liberty”). Still, he avoided turning from brave iconoclast to impossibly paranoid kook. At a certain point, he seemed aware his GOP brethren were not going to follow him to what could too easily be called black helicopter land after Holder’s letter. Paul decided to just say “hooray” and that he was “quite happy” and let Brennan go forward to his new CIA job—without Paul’s vote.