1. Don’t cry for the Obama administration. If Bush-appointed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had made the same mistake as Eric Holder, and left the door open to the assassination of American citizen noncombatants on American soil in areas where the courts were still operating, the Democrats would have been all over it. I can picture a certain freshman Illinois Senator saying something like “In Red America we do not blow people up at high school football games, and in Blue American we do not launch missiles at soccer games. There is only one rule of law in the United States of America.” And so forth.
2. David Frum is going at Rand Paul all wrong. Paul picked his issue and measured his policy demands very carefully. Going at Rand Paul in the following terms is counterproductive:
The answer is that Paul emerges from a milieu in which far-fetched scenarios don’t seem far-fetched at all. Paul specifically mentioned the possibility of a democratically elected Adolph Hitler like figure coming to power in the United States. Looming federal tyranny – against which the only protection is an armed citizenry – is a staple item in the Rand Paul inventory of urgent concerns.
Most Republican senators don’t share this nightmarish vision of their country, thank goodness. But they do answer to an activist base that shares a nightmarish vision of President Obama. Rand Paul stipulated that he did not intend his remarks about a Hitler-like president to apply to the present president. But he must have a pretty fair idea of what his core constituency hears when he talks about looming tyranny – and so of course must the Republican senators who joined him at the rostrum.
Paul rhetoric during the filibuster (what I heard of it) was that the Obama administration had opened the door to the use of a power that no administration should ever have regardless of how unlikely the current administration is to actually use that power. That is the message that most people (including many center-left people) heard sympathetically. Arguing that other people on the extreme right heard a different message from the same words doesn’t discredit Paul. At most, it discredits those people. If Rand Paul only spoke to anti-Obama paranoids, Paul wouldn’t be that important. Attacking Rand Paul as an extremist at the moment when he has shifted the rhetorical ground in his favor only makes his critics sound either spiteful or extreme themselves. Rand Paul’s old man could usually be counted on to marginalize himself in these kinds of moments because he couldn’t resist answering with a yes if a reporter asked him if Jefferson David had legal right on his side during the Civil War. Rand Paul doesn’t look like he is going to make that kind of mistake very often. He doesn’t have the affect of a paranoid extremist and he chooses his words very carefully. Ron Paul would get baited into losing rhetorical battles. Rand Paul is now baiting his father’s political enemies. Don’t take the bait. Low-key magnanimity is best. Yeah, Rand, you’re right. The president doesn’t have the power to assassinate Americans citizen noncombatants on American soil if there is no imminent threat and the courts are functioning in that area. Let’s move on. It helps that Paul actually is right as far as I can tell.
3. The drone assassination program is actually pretty popular. That Paul was able to win a political victory here says a lot about Paul’s political skill. Do I think Paul’s desire to change American foreign policy is a lot more expansive than you would think from the news coverage of the filibuster? Yup. But he is willing to take three steps to the center in order to move the center one step toward himself. He reminds me of Obama in that.
4. I think that one possibly unfortunate outcome of the filibuster is a strengthening of the libertarian tendency within the Republican party. I was sorry to see Senator Ted Cruz give an extravagantly favorable mention to Ayn Rand. That doesn’t mean there are no ideas worth borrowing from people who identify as libertarian. It does mean that a Republican party that is seen as too hostile to the government isn’t going to win. The social democratic statist individualism of the Democrats will beat libertarian on-your-own individualism under all but the most favorable circumstances. Republicans need to be the party of populist, limited, and effective government. Romney didn’t lose because the median voter thought he would tax too much, spend too much, and regulate business too much. It was because they though Romney’s policies (as they understood those policies) had no obvious benefit to the middle and working-classes.