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Rand Paul Was Great, but Did He Go Far Enough?
Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru are Bloomberg View columnists.
Margaret: I don't like everything Senator Rand Paul said in his amazing filibuster last night and this morning against the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director. But I love to death that he said it.
It was a beautiful thing, this filibuster, like the one Jimmy Stewart waged in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." That movie spoiled a whole generation about how actual democracy is practiced. But last night we got a taste of it.
This could have been another episode of Republicans Gone Wacky, but it wasn't. You should be proud, Ramesh. I was rooting for Paul to go on long enough to overtake Strom Thurmond's record of 24 hours and 18 minutes so that we would never have to mention Thurmond again. When I clicked on C-Span at 11:30 p.m., the filibuster was in full flower. I couldn't see how Paul was holding up as Senator John Thune was droning on to give Paul's voice a rest. Was Paul sitting down? Taking a catnap? How'd he look?
It was heartening to see how many of Paul's colleagues came to the floor to stand with him. He started out a lone figure. During the day, he brought up Hitler and occasionally lapsed into mild paranoia. But his basic point, over the domestic use of drones, was a good one: The White House should clarify when and how it has the authority to kill U.S. citizens on U.S. soil without due process.
Paul said that if President Barack Obama were still a senator, he would have joined him on the floor. I suspect he's right about that. But being president, knowing in vivid detail how close we are to annihilation each day, changes a man. Obama has a docile public much like President George W. Bush did -- still so frightened by memories of 9/11 that a commander in chief gets a wide berth. Think about it for very long and it's hard not to conclude that the Patriot Act is unconstitutional.
I like war by software. But Attorney General Eric Holder gives himself an awful lot of wiggle room about when it is OK to kill a suspected terrorist in this country, by a drone strike or not, when he's not actively carrying out a terrorist plot.
Shortly before 1 o'clock this morning, Paul answered the burning question: Yes, he would indeed end his filibuster to answer nature’s call. Rather than play the fool, Paul became less of one in his 13-hour filibuster.
Ramesh: Paul’s performance did become more impressive as the day, and night, wore on -- and I had exactly the same thought about Thurmond, Margaret. Someone has to break that record, if only to salvage the reputation of filibusters.
It felt last night as though the Republican Party was moving, minute by minute, toward Paul’s positions on national security and civil liberties. It happened spontaneously. Paul started to speak; conservatives on Twitter cheered him on; other Republicans, and Democrat Ron Wyden, slowly began to back him up. By the end of the night Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican National Committee, was calling on all Republican senators to go “stand with Rand.” The party had a kind of energy and unity I haven’t seen since the election.
The dispute covered narrow ground, though, as several of Paul’s colleagues stressed. Nobody was questioning our reliance on drones in general. The Republicans were just seeking to set an outer limit on the president’s power to kill. During his testimony yesterday, Holder resisted saying that it would be unconstitutional to kill a U.S. citizen in the U.S. without due process in the absence of a truly imminent threat. It took three questions from Senator Ted Cruz to win that concession.
That’s the point Paul kept returning to, and it’s why all of the late-night interventions of Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin were so irrelevant. Durbin asked Paul if he thought it was OK to kill Osama bin Laden even though he may not have posed an immediate threat. I thought Paul’s “touche” in response was a bit sarcastic, and appropriately so: It was as though Durbin had not been paying attention to anything Paul had been saying.
The limit Republicans want to establish is important in principle, but much of what is troubling about U.S. counterterrorism strategy is not yet being debated. The war authorization Congress passed after 9/11 is now badly out of date, which undermines both the legal and political basis of our operations. Americans sitting at cafes -- to cite Paul’s frequent hypothetical -- are of course perfectly safe from drones. Foreign civilians are more likely to become collateral damage. If the senators start taking up those issues, you’ll know something really is changing.
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