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After the filibuster, Paul went to a meeting of the Club for Growth, a big-money funder of Republican candidates who claim to privilege small government and low taxes above all. National Review reports from that meeting that Club donor George Yeager praised Paul for having “broadened his appeal to include three issues that 75 percent of the American people agree with….He wants a balanced-budget amendment, term limits, and a questioning of mindless nation-building overseas.”
It would be an extraordinary turn if Yeager’s vision of a successful Republican candidate can win with the GOP at large. Since 9/11, the Republicans have been dedicated precisely to nation building and a global war on terror that sees every moment of Middle Eastern unrest as an opportunity for the next invasion of a foreign country.
In fact, one of the most amazing things about the filibuster is that it could have been aimed 100 percent at George W. Bush and the policies the Republican party and the conservative movement have urged for most of the 21st century. Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus was calling on all his party’s senators to join Paul near the end of the filibuster. The National Republican Senatorial Committee raised high five figures off of the publicity surrounding it. Influential Iowa right-wing talk radio man Steve Deace declared that Paul would win Iowa if its caucus were held now.
Ben Shapiro at Breitbart.com tried to claim the day as a victory for “conservatism,” but it isn’t a conservatism anyone would recognize from the past two decades or more. Yet Paul now has the love of leading figures of the conservative opposition to the GOP mainstream, from Glenn Beck to Rush Limbaugh (who mused that Paul might succeed in making the party “suspicious of interventionism, suspicious of Islamic democracy building, suspicious of financial and military support for dubious regimes.”)
How long can the lovefest last? Once the mass Republican audience—especially Mitt Romney voters—really thinks about the implications of Rand Paul and his ideas, the post-filibuster love may sour. Paul’s chief of staff Doug Stafford told Business Insider, "Rand is one of the only people who can speak to libertarians, social conservatives, as well as your average mainstream Republican voter." In theory, yes.
But even in areas where Paul’s libertarianism shouldn’t be too controversial—like his five-year path to a balanced budget—hardly any of his political colleagues are willing to play along, and there's no mass constituency forcing them to. It’s not likely the rest of his party - whether rank-and-file voter or office-seeking politician - will get enthusiastic about his attempts to curb the federal drug war either.
Paul’s problems with Republican orthodoxy run deeper still. In order to keep her head from exploding from cognitive dissonance while remaining on the new right side of Republican history, the Washington Post’s right-wing columnist Jennifer Rubin praised Paul’s filibuster by claiming that he “wasn’t attacking the war on terror.”
But Paul absolutely was attacking the war on terror, which leads to a third problem.
3. Foreign Policy.
This filibuster was mostly reported as a civil liberties story, one about Americans’ right to be free from arbitrary attack from their government. That’s how Paul framed it himself. But at the heart of Paul’s peroration was something deeper than questioning executive authority to kill Americans at will. His talk lamented the troubled morass that more than 12 years of recklessly overreaching warmaking in the name of fighting terror have wrought. Paul attacked the loose way we use drones overseas, talked of likely blowback from our reckless killings in Third World villages and cities, condemned a war against an impossible-to-identify enemy, and railed against a war without end in space or time.
As reported by Slate's David Weigel, the senator told a group of reporters in a meeting at National Review’s D.C. offices:
"All of this stems from a very expansive understanding of the use of the Authorization of Force in 2001. I think most of the people who voted on that, when they did, thought we were voting to go to war with the people who attacked us on 9/11. They didn't realize it was a war without geographic limits and without end. And that's the problem with saying, oh, we're just going to give up—while we're involved in war—we're going to give up some of our liberties here at home. This is a war that has no end and it's hard to stop."
These are important things to care about. But they aren’t a likely recipe for political success. Polls show that most Americans are tired of the endless overseas wars. But in a post-draft America, foreign affairs are a very low political priority, with only 5 percent or so calling them a major electoral concern. Even Paul's supportive filibuster colleagues were pretty careful to stick to the Fifth Amendment and presidential authority when they spoke. They were not joining Paul in his larger critique of interventionist foreign policy.
There's no question that the filibuster made Rand Paul a star. The Twitter hashtag #standwithrand strode through the social media worlds like a colossus—top trending on Twitter! Over 200,000 Google searches! But for the establishment and the old media, it was almost a non-event. The very long front-page New York Times story about the Brennan nomination the day after the filibuster did not mention Rand Paul or the reason for the filibuster until the 16th paragraph, long after the jump. The Sunday news shows universally saw Jeb Bush as a more newsy interview “get” than Paul.
In the heat of the moment, some overenthusiastic movement watchers (like me!) saw the GOP changed irrevocably in a Paulian direction. It felt bracingly fresh to those of us watching it unfold, and watching everyone else we knew watching it unfold, commenting on the wonders we were seeing and the wonders of how we were all communicating about what we were seeing. The meta-loop opened to infinity when the commentary became the story and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) read pages of Twitter praise aloud to the nation.
While the filibuster was important, there’s no evidence yet it made Rand Paul a lasting household name. Or that people who are vaguely aware a senator talked for hours about something or other (“drones on… and on…” as CNN witlessly put it) could adequately explain what he was concerned with and why. Even if they access their news online or via smart phone, most Americans still get their news the semi-old-fashioned way, from legacy print or TV institutions.
Which isn't to scant the effect of Paul's filibuster. Rand Paul is a contender for the 2016 presidential race. Common wisdom has it that the Republican presidential nomination goes to whoever is next in line. Based on the popular vote from the 2012 primary season, that would mean Rick Santorum (and good luck with that, GOP). But in the real currency of nomination, delegate votes on the floor of the RNC, the runner-up in 2012 was Ron Paul. Perhaps his son can be heir to that position, if he can just navigate three small problems with the same aplomb he exhibited on filibuster day.