What Senator Paul Accomplished

If you are reading this post you have probably heard of Senator Rand Paul’s 13 hour filibuster over John Brennan’s confirmation as Director of the CIA. The filibuster ended today, giving both Washington politicians and their internet observers a chance to declare their thoughts on the Senator’s actions.

Many tweets, posts, op-eds, and press statements have been made. I add my voice to this chorus because too much of this discussion has missed the true significance of Senator Paul’s actions. Even if the filibuster was not intended to be anything more than a popularity-boosting publicity stunt, Senator Paul has accomplished something very real.

Senator Paul’s actions are placed in proper context by a simple question: what was the last speech – or heavens, even the last sound byte – made by a legislator on the Senate or House floor that garnered this level of national attention? When was it? Was it delivered within the last year? The last decade?

Senator Rand Filibusters
Image Credit: Senate Television, via Associated Press, 6 March 2013

Make no mistake about it. Senator Paul grand-standed. He pandered. His arguments lacked nuance. But he did something that no other Senator has accomplished for a long time: he successfully turned the Senate floor into a bully pulpit.

This has not been widely recognized. To the contrary, the popular nature of Senator Paul’s filibuster has been the main focus of his critics. The Wall Street Journal editorial board provides a typical example, stating this morning that “the country needs more senators who care about liberty, but if Mr. Paul wants to be taken seriously he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms. He needs to know what he is talking about.” [1]

Notice the dichotomy the Wall Street Journal imposes: either you are a demagouge seeking accolades with those “impressionable” and uninformed rascals that live outside the Beltway, or you are a serious statesmen who shows that you “know what you are talking about” by reserving your criticism for committee meetings and oversight hearings. Jonathan Bernstein expresses a similar (but more measured) view in a blog post that has been making the rounds:

“But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is the Senate at its best; the Senate at it’s best is doing real legislating and real oversight, not making speeches. And to the extent that Paul is reinforcing the romantic notion that talking filibusters are some sort of ideal, it’s hurting the prospects for solid, effective Senate reform. Which remains, alas, badly needed.” (emphasis added) [2]

Yes indeed – I suppose when Daniel Webster stood up and declared “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!” on the Senate floor, addressing not just his Senatorial colleagues, but the entire American people, he was not “at his best” either. That could only happen when Mr. Webster was working in an oversight committee. [3]

Daniel Webster and the Senate of the antebellum. Notice all of the onlookers in the stands.
Image credit: Boston Art Commission; “Webster’s Reply to Hayne” by George P.A. Healy

Rand Paul is not Daniel Webster. But the comparison is an important one: it gives us a sense of just how far the goal posts have been moved. There was once a time when Senators and Representatives were expected to plead their case before the American people on the House and Senate floors.  Debate and discussion by leading statesmen in public forums was considered an essential part of popular democracy. Through such discussion Congressmen were held accountable and through this forum Congressmen would communicate to their constituents, and at times, to the nation. There is a strong correlation between the decline of popular discourse on the Senate and House floors and the eclipse of the national legislature by the technocrats of a bloated executive branch. 

By bucking all of these sad trends Senator Paul has done our Republic a great favor. This is true even if the critics are correct. Senator Paul may be an unprincipled scally-wag who is using this filibuster purely for personal advantage, but this does not curtail his accomplishment. Senator Paul has proven than a rising politician can publicly declare his opposition to the establishment consensus and not be marginalized by doing so. Indeed, as the massive wave of twittering that accompanied the senator’s stand suggests, Rand Paul has benefited, not suffered, from his decision to take the ruling class consensus head on.

I truly hope that Senator Paul is as ambitious as his detractors claim him to be. Whether for reasons of principle or prominence, the senator has branded himself with this issue. Yet drone strikes by themselves are not large enough to sustain any great political ambition. If the senator wants his star to continue its rise then he will have to broaden his critique. This is a slippery slope, and establishment hawks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham know it – thus their virulent attacks upon Senator Paul this morning. It has never really been about the drones. They are a symbol for a much larger set of issues: the failures of a foreign policy that declares the whole world to be a battle field, the slow erosion of American liberties as we struggle to maintain world hegemony, and above all else the creeping power of an unaccountable and imperial executive branch. If Senator Paul can raise drone strikes to national prominence these issues will soon follow.

We will all be better off for it. 

[1] Editorial Board.  “Rand Paul’s Drone RantWall Street Journal. 7 March 2013.

[2] Jonathan Bernstein. “Rand Paul Talks.” A Plain Blog About Politics. 6 March 2013.

[3] The reference is to the famous Haynes-Webster debate. Daniel Webster finished his speech with that line. The Senate was packed to the brim with visitors the day of the debate; speech, was reprinted in its entirety by newspapers across the nation. For those unfamiliar with this event, I recommend Hal Morris’ excellent web-page,  which includes background to the debate, point-by-point breakdowns of each side’s case, and the full text of Senator Hayne and Senator Webster’s remarks. 

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I was disappointed with the WSJ Ed Page. Senator Rand's concerns include quite a bit more than drones. Separation of powers was asserted, and the executive branch was reminded of its Constitutional obligations (always a good thing).

Maybe his is not Daniel Webster (he actually holds Clay's seat), but I was transfixed for several hours. Senator Rand did not read election laws or recite from the phone book, he spoke elegantly and extemporaneously for 13 hours.