For Republicans, victories have seemed hard to come by. The occurrences of the last few weeks, however, have given new hope to the beleaguered GOP as they go head-to-head with a popular president. A recent Pew poll showed an overwhelming majority of Americans want deficit reduction to be addressed this year, mostly through spending cuts. Additionally, the administration’s doom-and-gloom predictions of what would happen if sequestration actually takes effect, and the fact that almost nobody has noticed the difference, have made the sequester a decisive victory for the Republicans over the president.
The wins, however, keep on coming.
The refusal of the White House, and Attorney General Eric Holder, to answer Sen. Rand Paul’s simple question about the legalities of using drones to kill American citizens in the United States led to the next big win. Paul took to the floor of the Senate and held an old-style filibuster that lasted almost 13 hours. Staying exclusively on message and only taking breaks when other senators interrupted him with questions so that he could rest his voice, the junior senator from Kentucky succeeded in forcing the administration to concede that it is illegal to target Americans “not actively engaged in combat.”
This distinction was described by National Review Online’s Kevin Williamson, whose writings on drone policy were read by the senator out loud, as “the difference between a police sniper shooting someone holding a hostage and police officer walking around with a list of people he’s allowed to shoot if he sees them.” Considering that this came after the president, when asked the very same question elsewhere, would only concede that “the rules outside of the United States are going to be different than the rules inside the United States,” this is a major victory for Sen. Paul.
But some Republican senators aren’t happy. “Old guard” Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham lambasted Rand Paul the next day, calling him all sorts of things from “ridiculous” to “whacko birds.” And despite their best efforts at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, which the filibuster most definitely was, they are more likely to be relegating themselves to irrelevance than slowing down the momentum being built by the “young guard” Republicans in the Senate.
Interestingly enough, if McCain and Graham would have had it their way, the Republicans wouldn’t even have the sequester win and all the unforced errors the administration keeps committing in talking up its negative effects. On June 21, McCain, speaking to a defense conference in Washington organized by Bloomberg Government, said that the defense cuts in sequestration were so severe he was ready to raise taxes to replace them. Assuming that had gone through, President Obama would’ve won himself another tax hike, and Republicans would have had to explain why increases in defense spending should be paid for by raising taxes.
Although Senator Paul’s filibuster was embraced by many other Republicans, it’s important to note that his views on drones were not. While he is uncomfortable with the use of drones in general, even overseas, most others realize that they are an important tool in national defense. But unlike McCain and Graham, these senators didn’t feel the need to disavow Mr. Paul. They realized that the opportunity provided by the framing of the issue to be only about killing Americans in the U.S. when not actively engaged in combat was too great to pass up. Taking an issue that virtually everyone agrees on, and framing it so that the president is on the wrong side of popular opinion, is an opportunity that has been hard to come by, as of late, for Republicans.
Among the senators assisting Rand Paul on the floor was Marco Rubio. Rubio’s foreign policy philosophy aligns itself more closely with that of the foreign policy “interventionist” camp of McCain and Graham, than the “isolationist” camp of Paul. For example, Rubio recently called for the U.S. to arm the rebels in Syria, much like Senators McCain and Graham. Paul, however, while campaigning with Mitt Romney, expressed his disagreement with this view and advocated a more “hands-off” approach. So why is Rubio aligning himself with Paul and not McCain and Graham? The answer is simple. Rand Paul is making the right argument.
At the gathering of the Republican National Committee in North Carolina shortly after President Obama’s reelection, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal exhorted Republicans to “stop being the stupid party.” The problem, he said was that the Republicans allowed the opposition to define the parameters of the debate, allowing themselves to be portrayed as outside the mainstream. Arguing against what he called “a debate fought entirely on our opponents’ terms,” he said, “We are a populist party and need to make that clear.”
Whatever your position on drone stirkes, it is hard to make a cogent argument for allowing the government to kill people in this country without due process. Which is why nobody thinks the government would actually do that. But by standing up and speaking for almost 13 hours — ostensibly waiting for President Obama to say that he wouldn’t do it, and not getting a response — Sen. Paul accomplished precisely what he set out to accomplish. He made Americans question why he wasn’t getting an answer for an issue that shouldn’t be up for debate.
The fact that McCain is the most vocal critic of the new wave of GOP senators can only help their cause within the party. The optics of McCain — an old, unpopular, failed presidential candidate who is more interventionist than even the interventionist wing of the Republican party — attacking the younger senators for making a basic constitutional point that virtually the entire country agrees with, only makes Rand Paul look better. If anything, perhaps he should send a thank you letter to Senator McCain.