Wednesday March 13, 2013

Joe Gendelman

A national political star is born. Kentucky’s Republican Senator Rand Paul became the political Justin Beiber of libertarians everywhere and a role model for GOPers who want to grab media attention by staging a dramatic "talking filibuster." And, suddenly, Republicans who had steadfastly resisted the idea of bringing back talking filibusters were falling all over themselves to get involved and praise it.

Paul’s 12 hour and 52 minute televised Senate talk-fest designed to extract promises from the Obama administration on the use of drones in the U.S. ended only when his bladder demanded it. By the time it ended, Paul had successfully seized the torch from his libertarian favorite dad, Ron Paul -- and led some to declare him a front-runner for 2016 and the GOP’s new face. His rock star status also sparked a strong warning by a top Republican establishment pundit.

Paul’s filibuster resonated and attracted attention and praise on Twitter and Facebook and appealed to younger Americans. The filibuster in recent years has become the political coward’s way out, where politicians simply vote to stop a bill. Just as lobbyists hide behind politicians, Republicans hid behind the voting filibuster while breaking historical filibustering records. It led, centrist blogger Robert Levine notes, to a "tyranny of the conservative minority" controlling the legislative process.

Paul had the guts to stand up and do it the old-fashioned "Mr. Smith Comes to Washington" way. And when Republicans saw it captured the public’s imagination suddenly some of them wanted to stand up (for now), too.

Arizona Sen. John McCain blasted Paul’s insinuations about how the American government might use drones (he called Paul and a few others far-righters "wacko birds") and insisted he, not Paul, represented Reaganism. Yet, Paul seemed to be speaking passionately about true beliefs. He wasn’t talking like a Fox & Friends host, or a tiresome Donald Trump, or vomiting up some conservative blogger’s demonizing blog post.

Paul seemed like Ron Paul. 2.0 -- a younger version of the libertarian hero who could lift Paulism out of niche politics and take it to a higher level. In fact, his arguments warning about the need for clearly stated limits on drone assassinations could be similar to arguments Democrats would make.... if George W. Bush and not Barack Obama had been President.

Democrats later scrambled to explain why they had not joined Paul in expressing reservations about drone use in the United States. Yahoo’s Columnist Walter Shapiro wrote: "With Obama in the White House, it is now the Republicans who are the unexpected guardians of civil liberties and the Democrats who play the 9/11 card."

And so you had Paul seizing the news cycle, Paul roping in new and old media, and Paul getting the ultimate Republican blessing: Rush Limbaugh, calling him a hero. A Contract From America poll found Paul the conservative GOP Presidential pick for 2016. Meanwhile, the Weekly Standard’s influential Bill Kristol wrote a column warning his party about Paul:

"Paul’s political genius strikes us as very much of the short-term variety. Will it ultimately serve him well to be the spokesman for the Code Pink faction of the Republican party? How much staying power is there in a political stance that requires waxing semihysterical about the imminent threat of Obama-ordered drone strikes against Americans sitting in cafés?"

In 2016, Kristol warned, "you can’t beat something with nothing."

Kristol has it right: Paul appeals to the conservative choir and some younger voters, but reporters would have a field day digging up his past statements on other issues, airing his appearances on far right-talk shows -- and Paul would do nothing to help the Republican Party win the powerful emerging demographic groups it lost in 2012. But, hey, who cares? Everyone loves a good, emotional show.

Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates.