How is a first-term senator becoming a force in his party on foreign policy? Because in today’s GOP, he’s what passes for moderate.
Droning on: Paul’s daylong filibuster in March protesting U.S. drone policy earned him both fame and infamy among his fellow Republicans.
Shortly before noon on Wednesday, March 6, Rand Paul, the fifty-year-old senator from Kentucky, took the floor of the Senate. “I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination for the CIA,” Paul said. “I will speak until I can no longer speak. I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court. That Americans could be killed in a café in San Francisco or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is an abomination.”
Ever since 2011, when two Predator drones in the Yemeni sky assassinated Anwar al-Awlaki, a jihadist cleric born in New Mexico, critics have alleged that the Obama administration, by not releasing evidence of the cleric’s guilt, had violated the due process rights of a U.S. citizen. Beginning this January, Paul sent letters to the White House requesting information about the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA)drone program, including whether the administration had the authority to launch a drone strike against an American on U.S. soil. But he had not been satisfied with the Justice Department’s response: that although the president had no intention of ever carrying out such a strike, it was possible to imagine a situation, like Pearl Harbor or 9/11, where he might have no other choice.
As the hours of the filibuster wore on, Paul steadily earned the attention of the public and the support of his Tea Party compatriots in the Senate. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas joined in, and then so did Jerry Moran of Kansas. Even Marco Rubio, who as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had voted in favor of Brennan, lent his support to Paul, eating up time by quoting Wiz Khalifa and Jay-Z. Well after midnight, Paul wrapped up, saying, “There are some limits to filibustering, and I am going to have to go take care of one of those here.” In just twelve hours and fifty-two minutes, the junior senator from Kentucky had gone national.
Even though Paul had found an eye-catching way to attack the Obama administration, not everyone in the Republican Party approved of his choice of cudgel. “Calm down, Senator,” huffed the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Lindsey Graham brought to the Senate floor a sign comparing the number of Americans killed on U.S. soil by al-Qaeda (2,958) and those killed there by drones (zero). John McCain labeled Paul and his congressional allies “wacko birds.” To these critics, Paul’s protest was absurd, implying that the U.S. government might start hunting Americans with drones just for the fun of it. In June, after Paul called the just-leaked news of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) digital surveillance program “an extraordinary invasion of privacy,” McCain questioned his credibility. McCain noted that just before the April 15 Boston Bombings, Paul had rejected the idea that America was a battlefield in the war on terrorism.
John Tate, who heads the Campaign for Liberty, a grassroots lobbying group founded by Rand Paul’s father, Ron, dismissed the party’s foreign policy establishment as nervous about new competition. “Why would they be reacting so strongly and forcefully and negatively if they weren’t scared?” he asked. But the Paul phenomenon is largely the party’s own doing, the consequence of the GOP’s hawkish wing having long ago displaced its moderate one. For decades, moderates ruled the party’s foreign policy establishment, from President Dwight Eisenhower, who was unafraid to issue nuclear threats to end the Korean War yet inveighed against the military-industrial complex, to President George H. W. Bush, who called for a “new world order” yet resisted the temptation to depose Saddam Hussein in the final days of the Persian Gulf War.
As the GOP turned right on domestic issues, however, the moderates got squeezed out. (Their last elected ally, Senator Richard Lugar, lost his Indiana primary to a Tea Party-backed candidate in 2012.) Taking their place after 9/11 was a new group of Republican foreign policy hands: the neoconservatives, idealists who saw the application of U.S. military power as the answer to many of the world’s problems. Yet as their project ran aground in Iraq and Afghanistan, they lost the trust of the American public. Strangely, though, neoconservatism never lost its grip on Republican politicians. During the 2012 Republican presidential primary, the candidates tried to outdo each other on keeping troops in Afghanistan and confronting Iran.
With a war-weary public concerned more about unemployment and debt than foreign affairs, the Republican elite’s hawkish consensus has created an opening for someone offering a more restrained alternative, and Paul has seized the opportunity. More than any other Republican politician in recent memory, he is challenging the party’s foreign policy elite. Where most Republicans have called for military intervention, Paul has advocated noninterference; where they have defended increases in military spending, he has proposed cuts.
His message of prioritizing nation building at home is reverberating so deeply, in fact, that Paul is being treated as a viable 2016 presidential candidate. And he is acting like one, filling his schedule with stops in states with early primaries and starting his own leadership political action committee. In other words, by making himself impossible to ignore, Paul is forcing a conversation that the Republican Party doesn’t want to have—and with an interlocutor much of it considers to be a foreign policy lightweight.
Just four years ago, Paul was removing cataracts and performing corneal transplants in southern Kentucky. “I don’t think that as a physician in Bowling Green practicing ophthalmology I was really carrying around a foreign policy,” he said to me one Wednesday afternoon in May. We were speaking in his Senate office, a hushed space decorated with equestrian prints. With his tired eyes and permanent bedhead, Paul looked like the sleep-deprived collegiate swimmer he once was. Before coming to Washington, his involvement in politics had been limited to campaigning on behalf of his father, and founding a group that graded state legislators on taxes. In 2009, when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell shoved his Kentucky counterpart Jim Bunning from his seat, Paul leaped into the race to succeed him.
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