Rand Paul’s epic filibuster in the United States Senate last week wasn’t just an important moment in the debate over executive power and drone warfare. It’s an important moment in the history of the Tea Party, even the conservative movement.
Paul’s Tea Party credentials are impeccable. He wrote a book in 2011, The Tea Party Goes to Washington. The 54-member Tea Party Caucus – a congressional organisation for like-minded Tea-partiers – was apparently his idea. He gave the Tea Party’s response to Barack Obama’s latest State of the Union.
Our ideas of the Tea Party are pretty entrenched. Either you think that the Tea Party is a white, racist, gun-toting, revolt of the middle class, or… well… in Australia it’s not clear there is an alternative view.
The international press has been hopeless on the significance of the Tea Party. The same media outlets that romanticised the Occupy movement stereotyped and dismissed the Tea Party as some arch-conservative uprising.
So it’s a big deal that Tea Party Paul made international headlines by standing up to the Obama administration on a distinctly civil liberties issue.
Paul used the confirmation of John Brennan for Central Intelligence Agency director to demand a full explanation of the legal basis for using drones to kill citizens and non-combatants.
The complete transcript is here, if you feel like reading a lazy 68,000 words, but this Guardian piece has some of the highlights.
The most memorable hypothetical in his 13-hour filibuster was this: under the administration’s drone policy, Barack Obama could order that American citizens “be killed in a café in San Francisco or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky.”
Supporters of Obama have been quick to say this is an absurd scenario – there’s no way the president would do anything of the sort.
But Paul’s point was not that the hypothetical was likely, but that the administration does not appear to believe there is any legal impediment to sending a Hellfire missile into a San Francisco café.
Constitutional government should have strict limits on what it can and cannot do. Citizens shouldn’t have to count on their president being a good guy.
To see just how many people have wilfully missed Paul’s point, check out this self-satisfied “fact-check”, which has determined that the hypothetical is “False” but admits the White House hasn’t strictly ruled out that it has such power.
And the only reason this debate has been rekindled is because a Tea Party senator made a symbolic 13-hour stand.
The next day the Attorney General Eric Holder sent this sharp letter to Paul, saying the president does not have the authority to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil. Paul quickly claimed victory. But Holder’s reply is more ambiguous than it first appears. And it doesn’t tackle the broader issue: there are few statutory checks on the drone program. Drones are the iconic example of the growth of executive power in the Obama age.
At the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has an interesting piece about how the mainstream press got Rand Paul wrong from the start. They obsessed about his views on the 50-year-old Civil Rights Act while ignoring his civil libertarianism and foreign policy.
Compare Paul to the so-called “moderate” Republicans – those who stand against the wild-eyed Tea Party radicals holding the nation to ransom.
The doyen of moderation, John McCain, said Paul’s filibuster was merely a “stunt”. Lindsey Graham, another storied moderate in the Senate, addressed his colleagues mournfully: “to my party, I’m a bit disappointed that you no longer apparently think we’re at war.”
Graham later said Rand’s filibuster had persuaded him to support Brennan, as it had “become a referendum on the drone program”.
Yes, those moderates who are so admired in the Australian press used dissent against Obama’s war powers as a reason to support them. Just as a few years ago those moderates supported George W Bush’s extraordinary spending spree, foreign policy adventurism, and trouncing of civil liberties.
Yet we’re told it is the Tea Party which is dangerous.
Paul is not a prince of libertarian purity, by any means. He’s both more conservative and more mainstream than his father, Ron Paul. Nor is the Tea Party ideologically pure – it is part conservative and part libertarian.
Still, the rush of support from other congressional Republicans for Paul’s unambiguous stand on civil liberties is significant. He was even praised by the usually pro-war Rush Limbaugh for defending “the freedom and liberty of the people of the United States”. Limbaugh went on to mock John McCain.
Like everything that happens in politics we could dismiss this as partisan opportunism.
But since the Tea Party burst onto the scene to reject the bank bailouts, it has threatened a more general outbreak of libertarianism within the GOP.
Every Republican now believes Federal spending needs to be cut. Big government conservatism is completely discredited. That is in no small part because of the Tea Party. It’s easy to forget that more government spending at home was as much a part of the neo-conservative agenda as foreign interventionism was. Remember “compassionate conservatism”?
We know there is a Republican constituency for civil liberties and limiting executive power, even after a decade of anti-terror abuses. There were some promising hints of foreign policy modesty during the last Republican primary campaign. Rand Paul’s filibuster is an important moment. Let’s hope it is also a turning point too.