When the Madness Began to Lift

Rand Paul's historic filibuster may have changed American politics.


The 2004 Republican National Convention, held in New York City as close as possible to the three-year anniversary of the day the World Trade Center was pulverized by terrorists, was a three-day festival of chest-thumping snarls directed at anyone who'd dare mention the concepts of civil liberties or executive branch restraint.

"Which leader is it today that has the vision, the willpower, and, yes, the backbone to best protect my family?" asked turncoat Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), in the most celebrated of the convention's speeches. "Sen. Kerry has made it clear that he would use military force only if approved by the United Nations. Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending. I want Bush to decide!"

Conservatism was united in wanting President George W. Bush to be the sole decider on all matters related to a massive, open-ended effort to play "offense, not defense" in the War on Terror. And it was a popular message among non-conservatives, as evidenced by the results of the 2004 election. Even self-described libertarians at the time were busy dreaming up hypothetical ticking time-bomb scenarios to justify the heretofore beyond-the-pale use of torture.

For those of us who oppose torture, who reckon that the proper purpose of a military is defense, and who believe that Lord Acton's "power corrupts" insight can also apply to American armed forces, no matter how noble-sounding the cause, the Republican Convention, and the era surrounding it, was a kind of fever dream.

And the terror sweats hardly stopped with the 2008 Republican nomination of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Yes, McCain was against torture, having had his legs and shoulders repeatedly smashed by the Viet Cong. But his foreign policy and his vision of unshackled executive power were the most robustly interventionist since the final presidential candidacy of his hero, Teddy Roosevelt.

McCain advocated "rogue-state rollback," a doctrine of supporting rebels against tyrants and then treating them like full military allies should the dictator crack down. He thought it was funny to re-imagine the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann" as "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran." He bashed libertarians and individualists and "isolationists" at every turn, while lauding Roosevelt for "liberally interpreting the constitutional authority of the office to redress the imbalance of power between the executive and legislative branches."

You might have thought that McCain's defeat at the hands of a former constitutional law professor who rallied the anti-war vote with his talk of a more restrained approach to presidential warmaking would have proved a decisive turning point in the national conversation about war and civil liberties. But the 2008 general election hinged far more on the economy than foreign affairs. And then Barack Obama did what all new presidents do: He learned to love executive power.

With most of the left's anti-war and pro–civil liberties blocs in his pocket, President Obama launched a war in Libya without congressional approval, diverted Troubled Assets Relief Program funds to automobile companies in direct defiance of Congress, defended state secrets privileges in court, prosecuted whistleblowers, and launched a secret program allowing the president to drone to death anyone he deems to be an enemy combatant, no matter if they were on the battlefield, inside a country not at war with the U.S., an American citizen (as was the case with pro-jihadi Anwar al-Awlaki), or even just that American citizen's teenaged son.

So grotesque has been Obama's use of his secret "kill list" that when former White House press secretary and then–Obama campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs was asked in October 2012 to justify the drone assassination of 16-year-old U.S. citizen Abdulharman al-Awlaki, he had the chutzpah to say, "I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father, if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children. I don't think becoming an Al Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business."

As was certainly known to the Obama administration, Abdulharman was killed two weeks after his father, who he reportedly hadn't seen in two years. Gibbs, a recent hire by the liberal cable network MSNBC, made headlines in February when he admitted that "one of the first things they told me" at the White House was "You're not even to acknowledge the drone program. You're not even to discuss that it exists."

In the midst of this decade-long madness, this horrifying, covert embrace of extra-judicial robot death squads, a self-described libertarian Republican, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, stood up for 13 hours on the Senate floor March 6 and yelled "Stop!" What began just before noon as a quixotic, one-man filibuster of CIA director nominee John Brennan (who, in another indication of the Obama-era civil liberties deterioration, had been deemed too pro-torture by Democrats as recently as 2008), soon evolved into a phenomenon the likes of which we may have never seen.

Instead of reading through a phone book or quoting random texts to kill the time and dull his colleagues' ears, Paul launched a cogent, comprehensive, and inspirational half-day critique of bipartisan executive overreach. By framing his objection as a simple attempt to get an answer from the White House on one narrow but fundamental question—does the administration believe it has the legal and constitutional right to assassinate Americans by drone on U.S. soil?—Paul was able to rally unlikely allies and expose the opposition as arrogant defenders of unchecked lethal power.

"I will speak as long as it takes," he began, "until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court."

As the day wore on, the hashtag #StandWithRand became the biggest-trending topic on Twitter. Congressmen and senators, including some who had been out to dinner that night with President Obama, began streaming back into the Capitol as word spread through town that something historic was afoot. Rising Tea Party star Ted Cruz gleefully read Twitter encouragements on the Senate floor and stressed that this moment was equally about the overreach of his fellow Texan George W. Bush. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) quoted impishly if randomly from rappers Jay-Z and Wiz Khalifa. As the hour approached midnight, suddenly there was Minority Leader (and former vociferous opponent of Rand Paul) Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on the floor singing Paul's praises, followed quickly by Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). In the course of the night you could feel the madness starting to lift.

When the sun came up, Washington,D.C., suddenly felt like a different place. Rand Paul was drawing raves, sometimes reluctantly, from Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Charles Krauthammer on the right, Van Jones, Code Pink, and the American Civil Liberties Union on the left, and all sorts of less categorizable human beings in-between. His detractors seemed shrill, hyperbolic, and defensive—John McCain called Paul and Cruz "wacko birds," the Wall Street Journal editorial board sneered at "impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms," MSNBC commentator Lawrence O'Donnell condemned "the vile spewing madness that came out of that crazy person's mouth," and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) lamented to his colleagues, "I'm a bit disappointed that you no longer apparently think we're at war."

Even hawks such as Washington Post commentator Jennifer Rubin thought Rand Paul got the best of the exchange. McCain and Graham "never looked so old school and out to lunch as they did today," she wrote. Rubin's headline, or a version thereof, was on a lot of people's minds after the filibuster was finished: "Rand Paul wins: Changing of the guard?" One can only hope.