It wasn't pretty, and it certainly didn't make him any friends, but on Sunday night, Rand Paul finally got what he wanted. The Kentucky Senator successfully managed to run out the clock on the Patriot Act, singlehandedly blocking an extension of three provisions of the controversial law, including the part that the NSA has been relying on for the bulk surveillance of American phone records.
The outcome is almost certainly temporary: The Senate is now debating a modified Patriot Act renewal called the USA Freedom Act, and could pass a bill as early as Tuesday. The legislation, which has already passed the House, would reinstate the law's expired authorities, with limited reforms, including moving metadata collection from the government to private companies. Still, Paul has effectively declared victory, if only for a few days.
"Tonight we stopped the illegal NSA Bulk data collection. This is a victory no matter how you look at it," Paul said in a statement. "It might be short-lived, but I hope that it provides a road for a robust debate, which will strengthen our intelligence community while also respecting our Constitution."
His moves have predictably outraged Senate surveillance hawks, who have spent the past few days accusing Paul of basically inviting terrorists to attack the homeland. Even Paul's allies in opposing the Patriot Act were a little annoyed at his maneuvering Sunday, which delayed consideration of the USA Freedom Act, allowing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Paul's fellow Kentucky senator), who opposes any reform to the government's surveillance powers, to pack the bill with amendments that would preserve the government's surveillance powers.The remarks wound down a noisy crusade that has pitted Paul, a 2016 presidential candidate, against almost everyone else in in his party. For nearly two weeks, Paul has commandeered Patriot Act opposition in the Senate, throwing up procedural hurdles and dragging out debate to fulfill a promise to supporters that he would force the end of the NSA's bulk collection of phone data.
Still, this has undoubtedly been Paul's moment. A cadre of red-shirted Stand With Rand supporters crowded the Senate galley for Paul's showdown with the security state. As they did during the Senator's ten-and-a-half-hour anti-Patriot Act talkathon last week, Paul's digital campaign army flooded the internet with tweets and Facebook posts Sunday, hawking bumper stickers, avatars, and Rand Paul–branded "NSA Spy Cam Blockers ," and inviting fans to post pictures of themselves watching C-SPAN.
On Monday night, the campaign launched a cable ad hyping up Paul's anti-NSA crusade. "Sometimes you have to take a stand, hold the line, and not back down," the ad opens, over a shot of a revolutionary soldier.
The entire Paul political apparatus has gotten in on the action. The Campaign for Liberty, the political arm of the Ron Paul industrial complex, launched a Stop the Surveillance Banner Bomb, and sent out increasingly urgent emails every few hours to rally—and raise money from—its robust network of zealous limited-government activists. The frenzy reached peak weirdness with a video from America's Liberty PAC, a pro-Rand Paul Super PAC, that billed Sunday's Senate debate as a "brawl for liberty" between a shirtless, bodybuilding Rand Paul and opponents of NSA reform: "Obama the Email Reader," Ted Cruz, "The Capitulating Canadian," and so on.
Irreverent and slightly agro, the online media barrage signals that, after months of trying to button up for the mainstream Republican Establishment, the younger Paul is finally returning to his roots, reigniting the freak Revolution whose campaign blimps and money bombs and endless message boards turned both he and his father into limited-government folk heroes.
It has also led many of Paul's critics to argue that his prolonged Patriot Act protest is merely a campaign ploy. "I know what this is about—I think it's very clear—this is, to some degree, a fundraising exercise," Arizona Senator John McCain, who spent most of Sunday sparring with Paul, told Politico. "He obviously has a higher priority for his fundraising and political ambitions than for the security of the nation." In an earlier story, the Washington news outlet suggested a similar motivation, speculating that Paul has had trouble locking up Republican super-donors for his White House bid, and is now turning back to his grassroots base for campaign cash.
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Obviously, some of this has to do with money. Virtually all of the tweets, emails, and digital ad bombs include some kind of solicitation for donations. "Right now, compromises are being negotiated and deals are being cut," Ron Paul wrote in one of the dozens of fundraising emails sent by Paul-related groups this weekend. "That's why Campaign for Liberty needs to raise an additional $50,000 to keep our hard-hitting 'Stop the Surveillance State Banner Bomb' running."
But there's something else going on with Rand Paul's one-man stand, something beyond the usual political moneygrubbing. For perhaps the first time since he launched his presidential bid, it looks like Paul is actually having fun. Over the last 18 months, Paul's advisors have diligently built up the Senator's credibility with the Republican mainstream, crafting his reputation as a rising party leader whose 2016 campaign would have to be taken seriously. To a large extent, it's worked: Most polls put Paul in the top tier of GOP candidates, and he's been accepted, if not necessarily embraced, by his party's Establishment.
But with his Patriot Act blitzkrieg, Paul seems to have abandoned those efforts to fit in. Even as the rest of his party accuses him of forfeiting the homeland to terrorists, Paul seems to relish his uncompromising—and increasingly lonely—stance against the "spy state." He spent most of Sunday openly sparring with McCain, who at one point demanded that Paul be cut off from speaking. He also clashed openly with McConnell, his political patron, who, despite endorsing Paul's presidential campaign, accused his fellow Kentucky Senator of waging "campaign of demagoguery and disinformation."
Paul responded to his opponents in kind. "The people who argue that the world will end and we will be overrun by jihadists tonight are trying to use fear," he said in a speech on the Senate floor Sunday. "They want to take just a little bit of your liberty but they get it by making you afraid. They want you to fear and give up your liberty. They tell you if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. That's a far cry from the standard we were founded upon—innocent until proven guilty."
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Paul's baiting of the Republican Party's foreign policy hawks hasn't been limited to the Patriot Act fight. In an interview last week— with MSNBC , no less—he blamed neoconservatives for the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS. "ISIS exists and grew stronger because of the hawks in our party who gave arms indiscriminately," he told "Morning Joe" host Joe Scarborough. "Everything that they've talked about in foreign policy, they've been wrong about for 20 years," he continued, "and yet they have somehow the gall to keep saying and pointing fingers otherwise."
Then, on Tuesday, as the Senate continued to wrangle over NSA surveillance, Paul held a press conference to introduce a bill, cosponsored by Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Kirsten Gillibrand, demanding that the government declassify the 28 redacted pages from the 2002 congressional inquiry into the September 11 terrorist attacks. That's correct: A Republican presidential candidate is publicly demanding that the government tell the truth about 9/11.
As you might expect, all of this has made Republican heads explode. "I've said on many occasions that I believe that he would be the worst candidate that we could put forward, not just on the PATRIOT Act but on his views on national security," McCain told reporters Sunday. When Paul took the floor on Sunday, GOP Senators walked out en masse. "The time to negotiate was a week ago last Thursday, when he turned down every rational offer that was made to him," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr told Bloomberg, "I can tell you this: There won't be any negotiations with Rand Paul from this point forward."
How all this will affect Paul's chances at winning the party's presidential nomination is still unclear. But like a kid who has finally stopped hiding his Magic Cards at the back of his locker, the Kentucky Senator no longer seems interested in fitting in. On Sunday, after skipping a strategy session with his Republican colleagues, Paul stood off to the side on the Senate floor, flanked by Republican representatives Thomas Massie, of Kentucky, and Justin Amash, of Michigan, Liberty Movement acolytes who were reportedly there make sure surveillance hawks didn't try any Patriot Act funny business. At the end of the night, the trio reportedly drove away in Massie's blue Tesla, branded with the vanity plate "NDFED."
"The Washington establishment on both sides is against me, but when you get outside of the Beltway, you find that a majority of Republicans do not like this government spying program," Paul told radio host Laura Ingraham Monday. "A majority of people think the government has gone too far."
Grace Wyler is on Twitter.