Shortly after Rand Paul’s talking filibuster unexpectedly seized national attention, Bill Kristol came back with his normal comedy routine. The junior senator from Kentucky was dismissed as an emblem of “kookiness” and “fearmongering,” “waxing semihysterical” as a “spokesman for the Code Pink faction of the Republican party.”
John McCain and Lindsey Graham were Kristol’s opening act. McCain grumbled about “wacko birds” and the dang libertarian kids who need to get off his lawn. Graham dismissed Paul’s questions about the limits of presidential power as undeserving of a response, in keeping with his now-infamous quotation, “Shut up, you don’t get a lawyer!”
But for the first time in a long time, the GOP rank-and-file wasn’t laughing along. Redstate.com editor and conservative commentator Erick Erickson asked if McCain and Graham simply resented Paul and his Republican allies for generating more media attention.
The top two Republicans in the Senate and the chairman of the Republican National Committee weighed in to support Paul. The National Republican Senatorial Committee was quick to try and capitalize for fundraising purposes, as did various Tea Party groups.
No less a barometer of conservative opinion than Rush Limbaugh stated flatly, “The neocons are paranoid.” Someone soon called in from Ventura, California, and added that McCain owed Paul a public apology.
“I’m calling about Lindsey Graham and John McCain,” the caller told Rush. “I am really ticked off as a veteran the way John McCain and Lindsey Graham have basically sold out somebody that they should have supporting.”
To be sure, some opportunists hopped aboard the “I Stand with Rand” bandwagon. Relatively few of the Republican senators who joined the filibuster had expressed much concern about drones before, and some had voted for legislation that could be construed as friendly to the drone status quo.
Many were happy to watch a Republican win a messaging war with the Democratic administration, as the Obama administration mostly backed down from a public fight.
But suddenly those who were in the position, as recently as the Chuck Hagel confirmation hearings, to read “unpatriotic conservatives” out of the party were themselves being derided as RINOs.
Kristol hasn’t been in such a position since his magazine editorialized against congressional Republican reluctance to intervene in the Balkans, saying, “When the ‘conservative street’ is wrong, it should be corrected—or ignored.” Kristol himself later recalled that when the Weekly Standard backed Bill Clinton’s involvement in Bosnia “a not insignificant chunk of our original subscribers immediately canceled out on us.”
What happened? The first is that Paul has generally picked battles where the non-interventionist argument is consistent with the anti-Obama side of the argument. From Libya to foreign aid to domestic drones, this has made his task much easier. Where that framing is difficult or impossible, he tends to vote his conscience but assume a lower profile.
The second is that Paul’s “conservatism” is unimpeachable. He ranks at or near the top of the ratings compiled by the American Conservative Union, Club for Growth, and Heritage Action. He has been reliable on causes dear to the hearts of many movement conservatives that nevertheless escape the attention of most Republican politicians. Unlike Jon Huntsman—or at times even his father—he does not hide this light under a bushel.
Finally, Paul has attacked the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy and civil liberties at its weakest rather than strongest points. Pace his detractors, Paul wasn’t making a demagogic or hysterical case against the status quo. He repeatedly said that he suspected President Obama agreed with him on the merits of the issue but was like most executives afraid to surrender even theoretical powers.
What Paul repeatedly asked for were lines, limits, and some degree of public transparency. The true demagogues are those who try to twist those requests into a call for dismantling the military or denying terrorism. During his Heritage Foundation speech, Paul conceded that even with a more restrained foreign policy some practitioners of terror and adherents of violent strains of Islam would not “go quietly into the night.”
Paul’s critics are unnerved precisely because he is pointing out the obvious: when most Americans—and even most conservatives—signed up for the war on terror, they meant retaliating against those attacked us on 9/11 and taking greater care to prevent future attacks.
They did not sign up for routine presidential military interventions in a growing number of countries loosely based on a decade-old authorization of force. And they definitely did not believe they were consenting to live under the laws of war at home in a conflict without geographic or temporal limits and a somewhat nebulous enemy.
For the idea of America as a permanent battlefield is ultimately incompatible with limited government in any meaningful sense. It is bizarre to claim American liberty is so fragile that it cannot survive the existence of tyranny in any corner of the world but so robust that it is totally unthreatened by unchecked executive power at home. Odder still is the notion that a government most conservatives don’t trust to set up a health care exchange should be entrusted with secret lists and secret evidence.
Limbaugh again: “[Neoconservatives], I think, are worried that Rand Paul might be skillful enough to move the Republican mainstream away from the McCain, Kristol, neoconservatism view of the world and toward a position that is not as extreme as his father’s, but is suspicious of interventionism, suspicious of Islamic democracy building, suspicious of financial and military support for dubious regimes.”
That remains to be seen. But in the meantime, some pundits might be bothered once again by the rumblings from the conservative street.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the forthcoming book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?