Rand's Stand Shakes Up the 2016 Landscape

When Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) launched into his nearly 13-hour filibuster of the nomination of new CIA Director John Brennan on Wednesday, some conservatives on Twitter quipped that the young Paul was proving he’s a chip off the old Ron.

But Sen. Paul emerged from his filibuster feat with more than just a brief response on domestic drone strikes from Attorney General Eric Holder, which the lawmaker lauded as a victory. In just a couple of years in the Senate, he has moved the ball further on a viable presidential run for a self-described libertarian candidate than his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), did in two presidential tries.

On a Hill of back-room deal-making and politically expedient votes, Paul’s accomplishment — which never resorted to the phone-book-reading, aimless time-filling filibusters of old — stood out as a politician who was wiling to stand up — and not sit, use the loo or eat a meal other than his covert bites of candy — for what he believes is right. In an age where the right social media buzz can make C-SPAN must-see TV, he got exactly the right coverage in all the right corners.

It’s a stretch to suggest that Paul staged this as some sort of early campaign event — after all, before this week he’d gotten scant attention for his repeated hammering of the administration on drone use, and a filibuster is a rather painful way to get attention. But in the morning after, when the filibuster was over and Brennan was confirmed, something was different on the 2016 landscape.

Perhaps it was the unifying constitutionalist message that united unlikely bedfellows on the right and left, so much so that Code Pink hand-delivered flowers and chocolates to his office this morning. Perhaps it was seeing #StandWithRand still reigning as the trending topic on Twitter 12 hours later, and realizing he has the ability to strike a real chord in a grass-roots weary of being fed manufactured politicians. Perhaps it was the revelation that a candidate who has simply made constitutionalism cool would be able to credibly pull down partisan barriers in a general election.

Whatever image he forged of his own doing Wednesday, it was burnished today by the Senate floor attempt of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to tarnish Paul.

“I watched some of that, quote, debate, unquote, yesterday. I saw colleagues who know better come to the floor and voice some of this same concern, which is totally unfounded,” McCain said, adding it was “ridiculous” and “a stretch of the imagination” to “allege or infer that the President of the United States is going to kill somebody like Jane Fonda, or somebody who disagrees with the policies.”

“To my Republican colleagues, I don’t remember any of you coming down here suggesting that President Bush was going to kill anybody with a drone,” Graham said. “…To my party, I’m a bit disappointed that you no longer apparently think we’re at war. Not Senator Paul, he’s a man to himself.”

McCain and Graham had originally threatened to block the Brennan nomination themselves over outstanding questions about the Benghazi attacks, but that opposition evaporated and both senators cast their votes in favor of confirmation.

Paul’s effort started with a core of supporters, chiefly Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), but higher-ranking senators wandered in during the later hours of the filibuster to be on record with the once-in-a-blue-moon event, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), giving the impression that Paul was delivering crushing peer pressure to his colleagues. House members caught up in the contagious enthusiasm of the moment also found seats in the chamber.

While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) today offered praise for Paul’s, shall we say, control — “to succeed, you need strong convictions but also a strong bladder” — some other Democrats slammed and ridiculed the Paulibuster.

“No drone is going to be used in the United States against an American citizen walking down a street or sitting in a cafe,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said on MSNBC. “And you know, and then there was a stupid example of a drone being used against Jane Fonda. I mean, I don’t think this is befitting the Senate floor.”

On CNN, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the only Democrat to help Paul’s filibuster, said “this debate is not essentially about Jane Fonda.”

“I think you’re going to see Democrats and Republicans here in the United States Senate — we kind of call ourselves the checks and balances caucus — spending a lot of time trying to bring to light consistent with national security more details about the drone program,” he said.

Paul came to the Senate on a wave of Tea Party backing, but his time in Washington has been a rapid-fire evolution during which he’s immersed himself in the system, forged relationships, learned the ropes, and taken chances.

Mocking the filibuster and providing reading material for McCain’s arguments on the floor, The Wall Street Journal ripped Paul in an editorial accusing him of using the snowstorm for “theatrical timing.”

“The filibuster filled the attention void on Twitter and cable TV. If only his reasoning matched the showmanship,” the WSJ wrote, adding that the president should have the right to drone enemies on U.S. soil and beyond.

Even if Paul’s meteoric 13-hour rise doesn’t materialize into a presidential run next time out, it could shape the dynamics of the race with sharpened expectations of a candidate to have the kind of chutzpah and conviction that attract a similar swath of cheering filibuster followers.

Dubbed by TIME the “savior” of the GOP, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) carved out his time on the floor last night, quoting rapper Wiz Khalifa and lending his support to Paul.

By today, though, Rubio also lent his support to Brennan, expressed in a statement that interjected himself as a point man for Paul’s signature issue.

“Earlier today, I informed the White House that I would oppose further consideration of John Brennan’s nomination to be CIA director until Attorney General Eric Holder answered Senator Rand Paul’s question about whether non-combatant American citizens could be targeted by drones on American soil,” Rubio said. “Now that the question has been answered and the President has acknowledged that he does not, in fact, possess such authority, I intend to support cloture on John Brennan’s nomination and will vote to confirm him.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was with Paul for the long haul, and read supportive Twitter messages to his colleagues the Kentuckian plugged along. His campaign committee was fundraising off Paul’s filibuster today, sending supporters a #StandWithRand email featuring a photoshopped picture of the pair and a link leading to a donation page for Ted Cruz for Senate. A $13 donation — a buck for each hour Paul was on the floor — was encouraged.

Paul has hinted at 2016 aspirations, though, saying that a libertarian Republican is best poised to return the government and party to its constitutional underpinnings and appeal to voters from coast to coast.

The senator doesn’t have one of the “rock star” time slots at CPAC, but neither does Rubio: On the most recent schedule, Rubio speaks at 1:15 p.m. Thursday, followed by Paul at 1:30 p.m.

But in the world of presidential politics, where it can soil one’s chances to get anointed by special-interest and establishment groups too early, a memorable spotlight in the wee hours of the Senate can have a more lasting impact on voters than a convention keynote.

Races are invariably about more than optics, and it’s telling that Paul has been trying to display a more tempered stance on foreign policy than his isolationist father — though the senator readily espouses non-interventionist views among his more surprising turns. “Any attack on Israel will be treated as an attack on the United States,” he said in January after returning from the Jewish state, where he advocated a reduction in military aid. He’s also new on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this Congress.

But if Benghazi’s ultimately limited role in the 2012 election is any indication, Paul’s foreign policy may be the least concern of voters looking for someone with fire in his or her belly — and for a Republican Party yearning for a candidate passionate enough to outshine Hillary Clinton both with the base and beyond.

And it was a key tenet of Paul’s argument last night that will strike a chord with voters from CPAC to Anonymous (which also tweeted in support of Paul): Do you live under a government that has grown too powerful, too agenda-driven, that it can arbitrarily broaden the definition of “extremist” to constitutionally protected individuals and act against said individuals in the interest of the state?

When asked on Fox today what he might have done differently, Paul replied, “I would have eaten a bigger breakfast.”

“I was fortunate that the floor was open, and that I had an issue I cared passionately about,” he said. “And I think it’s a good idea for the country to have a real debate sometimes about does the Bill of Rights apply. Some of the questions aren’t easy.”