What to make of Rand Paul’s 12 hours and 52 minutes of fame? Was his filibuster on the floor of the Senate last Wednesday, as Charles Krauthammer said on Fox’s Special Report, though substantively misguided, “a stroke of political genius”? Was it, as Seth Lipsky suggested in a column in the New York Post, “wonderful,” signifying both that “our country is in a constitutional moment” and “the rise of a new generation of Republican constitutional conservatives”? Or was it, as William Shakespeare wrote ahead of the fact, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?
Forced to choose among three of our favorite pundits, we incline toward Shakespeare. That’s not to say Krauthammer isn’t right to be struck by Paul’s political talent. The senator dramatically seized a moment to make a point. He made himself briefly a central figure on the national stage. He demonstrated a political entrepreneurship that’s mystifyingly lacking in many of his GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill.
On the other hand, 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? And as for the other Republican senators who rushed to the floor to cheer Paul on, won’t they soon be entertaining second thoughts? Is patting Rand Paul on the back for his fearmongering a plausible path to the presidency for Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz? Is embracing kookiness a winning strategy for the Republican party? We doubt it.
As for Lipsky, he’s right to point out that, to the extent Paul struck a chord that resonated among listeners of good sense, it was a constitutionalist one. The Obama administration’s disdain for the Constitution and for the rule of law is startling. In reaction to that, and to the nanny state and crony government more broadly, conservatives have rediscovered constitutionalism and brought it politically to the fore. A restoration of constitutional forms and limits is a key element in the Republican vision. But the revival of constitutionalism is a serious task. Contra Lipsky, it does no favor to the cause of conservative constitutionalism to let it become identified with pseudo-constitutionalist paranoia.
After all, Lipsky himself acknowledges that “it’s hard to see where Obama has run off the constitutional rails so far in the drone warfare.” And neither Lipsky, nor others who want to give Paul the benefit of the doubt, have explained why anyone should take seriously what David Frum calls Rand Paul’s “nightmare out of a dystopian future: an evil future president shooting a missile at an American having coffee in a neighborhood café, merely on suspicion, without any due process of law.” Such an act would be illegal and unconstitutional, and if a president gave such an order, it should not and would not be obeyed. Meanwhile, there are important questions about both the efficacy and safeguards of the real, existing drone program of the U.S. government. But precisely because such issues are complicated ones and require argument, not demagoguery, Paul went out of his way not to deal with them on the Senate floor.
Frum worries that Paul’s moment of glory suggests that “the Republican party used to be the party more serious about defending America. Now it provides a home to those more doubtful that America is worth defending.” We trust that Republicans are still serious about defending America. And while Obama’s a bad president, and America’s got many problems, it isn’t, as Paul sometimes seemed to suggest, hurtling towards tyranny.
Which brings us back to Shakespeare. It would of course be unfair to compare Rand Paul to Macbeth—unfair both to Paul’s lawfulness and to Macbeth’s greatness (of a kind). It would be unfair to compare conservative talk radio to Lady Macbeth, just because both recklessly egg on their heroes. But it’s true that a Republican party that follows the path of Rand Paul will end up as thoroughly defeated at the ballot box as Macbeth was routed on the battlefield of Dunsinane. And as deservedly so.
But there is another course for Republicans. It’s increasingly clear, just two months into his second term, that President Obama has overreached on behalf of a rhetorically tired and substantively discredited agenda. “We still have judgment here.” Liberalism will be ripe for the judgment of the American people in 2014 and in 2016.
But you can’t beat something with nothing. The filibusterer from Kentucky has had “his hour upon the stage.” When will other, more serious, Republican dramatis personae step forward?