Ted Cruz got a polling bump from his presidential announcement. Marco Rubio saw a measurable boost. Rand Paul got bubkes.
Paul set out to change the trajectory of his presidential campaign on Wednesday, seizing the Senate floor for a marathon speech railing against the renewal of the Patriot Act, hoping to reassert himself as a serious candidate and re-establish his iconoclastic place in an increasingly crowded 2016 field.
“Are we willing to give up our liberty for security?” Paul asked two hours into his speech.
The bold, attention-seeking gambit pits Paul squarely against much of the 2016 field, including the more hawkish Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Lindsey Graham. It draws a striking juxtaposition with the likes of Chris Christie, who said in New Hampshire only days earlier, “You know, you can’t enjoy your civil liberties if you’re in a coffin.”
This is exactly the kind of contrast Paul’s campaign team wants to make in 2016. If some of Paul’s less traditionally conservative views on Israel, foreign aid, and international entanglement put him of out step with the GOP elites, his strategists believe Paul’s embrace of civil liberties and opposition to domestic spying by the National Security Agency put him more in line with the American people.
His campaign team quickly sprung into action to amplify Paul’s words in the mostly empty Senate chamber on Wednesday. Even before taking the floor, Paul prerecorded a low-tech video for YouTube explaining to supporters why he is filibustering. It helped his cause that soon after he seized the floor, Drudge Report plastered a banner about the “Rand Stand” across the top of its influential home page.
His chief strategist, Doug Stafford, hawked Drudge’s coverage of the speech-a-thon on Twitter. His campaign manager, Chip Englander, rooted Paul along minute by minute, as did his strategists in Iowa and New Hampshire. His allies in the limited-government world, including FreedomWorks, which worked with Paul on a lawsuit against the NSA’s surveillance methods, helped push Paul’s message out, too.
To some extent, Paul is hoping to capture lightning in a bottle twice. His 13-hour filibuster of President Obama’s pick for CIA director in 2013 won national attention and admiration. As the clock neared midnight then, a surprising array of GOP senators joined him on the floor in a show of solidarity, and the #StandwithRand hashtag trended globally.
Two years and two months later, his aides and allies have revived the hashtag, though few expect as big a flood of Republicans to back Paul this time. Fellow tea-party Sen. Mike Lee of Utah was the first to relieve Paul on the floor in 2013; notably, in 2015, it was a Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon who first came to the floor to speak in support of Paul. (Lee did come to the floor, though after Wyden.)
The exact timing of Paul’s speech only serves to highlight it as a symbolic political act rather than substantive legislative play. The Senate is technically not yet debating the Patriot Act (it is considering a trade bill) and his speech is not delaying any action until at least midnight, meaning it is not a filibuster in the truest sense, though his team is billing it that way.
The marathon speech, instead, represents the core of Paul’s political potential: an appeal to his libertarian base and a push for voters dissatisfied with the Republican Party.
The anti-Patriot Act and anti-spying rhetoric mobilizes the limited-government activists who fueled his father’s two presidential bids in 2008 and 2012. (Indeed, Ron Paul issued the rare comment about his son Wednesday, saying, “I urge all Americans who value privacy to stand with Rand until the NSA stands down.”) At the same time, it puts the spotlight on Paul’s efforts to reach the more independent-minded voters he’ll need to succeed in the GOP primary and beyond.
No wonder, his staff said, he would speak until he could speak no more. The question now is if Republican primary voters are listening.