It might not be a sign of an overnight upheaval in the leadership of Republican defense orthodoxy, but Sen. Rand Paul’s long filibuster raising questions over whether the government has the authority to use drones against Americans at home struck a civil libertarian nerve that is illuminating divisions within GOP ranks.
Paul’s filibuster, waged Wednesday over John Brennan’s nomination to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency, did not stop the Senate from ultimately approving him Thursday, 63-34. But it surprised many for the late-day buzz of support the often-on-the-fringe tea-party darling drew from more than a dozen senators, including fellow Kentuckian Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (who is up for reelection next year), and roughly 15 House members who visited the upper chamber in solidarity.
Political and defense analysts, and senators themselves, were divided over the implications of the Paul filibuster and whether it signals a rise in the tea party or libertarian influence within GOP leadership on defense issues. But together they painted a picture of how Paul managed to tap into a long-festering battle for more transparency from the administration and to seize on a populist civil-liberty chord of concern that resonated with the public, gaining attention in the press and on Twitter, which in turn fueled his filibuster.
It also comes on the heels of a bruising defeat for defense hawks who failed to stop the defense sequester from going into effect.
“The level of discomfort with this extends far beyond the filibuster,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. “Some of these individuals were drawn to the floor by the overwhelming support they saw the public giving Paul, which was unexpected. If Paul had been saying things that were so wrong, or so inflammatory, that he was denounced and people were turning off C-SPAN, senators wouldn’t have gone to the floor.”
Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz. — two of the party’s most outspoken national security stalwarts — beat back hard against Paul on the Senate floor Thursday.
They essentially called his “rant,” as it was dubbed by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, unreasonable. They argued, as the Obama administration later confirmed in a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder to Paul on Thursday, that the executive branch cannot use weaponized drones to kill noncombatant Americans in the U.S.
“I find the question offensive,” said Graham about Paul’s request for further information on the administration’s drone policy on the floor Thursday. “As much as I disagree with President Obama,… I do not believe that question deserves an answer.… This president is not going to use a drone against a noncombatant sitting in a café anywhere in the United States, nor will future presidents, because if they do, they will have committed an act of murder.”
Despite the vocal frustrations expressed by McCain and Graham about Paul’s line of questioning, many Republicans expressed support for Paul’s attempt to glean more information from the administration, particularly about its policies for using drones on Americans.
“I thought it was an important issue to talk about,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “Drone use generally has been very ill defined, and Senator Paul’s attempt to try to at least put a definition on it as it relates to drone use inside the U.S. was a totally reasonable thing for him to be talking about.”
He added, “I don’t know how reflective it is of any growing influence of any view of the country.”
For his part, Paul noted divisions within the GOP and argued that raising civil-liberty issues is a way of attracting people to the Republican Party.
“There is a debate,” he told reporters. “I’m not exactly sure what you call it, but there is definitely a debate within our caucus about foreign policy and civil liberties. But I think it’s also what broadens our party to attract new people is that we are open on these ideas.”
This article appears in the March 8, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.