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'Nothing Ever Happens': Rand Paul's Filibuster and Our Ridiculous Congress

Why is Paul, a caricature of libertarian wackiness, willing to challenge the president on this crucial issue, while liberals sit on their hands?

by Michael Arria
Mar 8 2013, 4:10pm
Credit to Rand Paul for showing how a real filibuster is done, but that's about all that came of it. Image: AP

I nearly watched the entire thing. When Ted Cruz began talking about the brave Americans who died at The Alamo, I thought that it could get no crazier. Little did I know, we were hours away from Marco Rubio citing Wiz Khalifa.

The junior Senator from Florida did not, in fact, quote the Pittsburgh rapper’s platinum single “No Sleep," but instead chose the catchy number “Work Hard Play Hard.” A moment later, Rubio riffed, "That takes me back to another modern-day poet by the name of Jay-Z and one of the songs he wrote: 'It's funny when seven days can change, it was all good just a week ago,'" It was at that moment that I figured another cup of coffee was in order.

The history of the American filibuster has all the shame, sorrow, and beauty of this country wrapped into it. In fact, a Revolutionary War hero, one who shot the first Secretary of the Treasury, kicked it off. The window for filibuster was, unintentionally, pried open by Aaron Burr, after he suggested that a previous question motion be nixed.

In 1806, when the Senate recodified its regulations, it adopted Burr’s idea. Perhaps, most admirably, it was successfully used by 12 anti-war senators to kill a bill aimed to arm merchant vessels. Their victory led Woodrow Wilson to urge the Senate to adopt a rule for cloture. The rule was invoked in 1964, after more than 75 hours of one of our most despicable filibusters: the Southern Democrats’ attempt to block passage of LBJ’s landmark Civil Rights Act.

We all know what Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator who filibustered the nomination of John Brennan Wednesday night, thinks about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While running for office, he kicked up controversy by criticizing it, saying “I'm not in favor of any discrimination of any form. I would never belong to any club that excluded anybody for race. We still do have private clubs in America that can discriminate based on race. But I think what's important about this debate is not written into any specific 'gotcha' on this, but asking the question: What about freedom of speech?” After making these comments on Rachel Maddow’s show, critics dug up a letter he wrote to a paper in 2002, defending businesses' right to discriminate.

What else does Rand Paul think? He thinks abortion should be illegal, even after rape or incest. He thinks the Department of Education should be liquidated. He wants an electronic fence around the border. He has no issues with Gitmo. He supports Israel unequivocally. “It is none of our business whether Israel builds new neighborhoods...” he once said. He opposes all gun control. In fact, he thinks teachers should be armed and he supports the “Stand Your Ground” laws made infamous by the senseless death of Trayvon Martin.

Why is Paul, a caricature of libertarian wackiness, willing to challenge the president on this crucial issue, while liberals sit on their hands?

Rand Paul’s political positions are toxic, but, like most libertarians supported by the Tea Party, he is a broken clock. On the subject of the American government’s right to assassinate its citizens, a point that Attorney General Eric Holder  has continually waffled on, Paul is completely right: the very idea is a deplorable, unconstitutional joke that should be opposed by any human being a conscience.

Two perplexing themes dominated the discourse throughout Twitter and the blogosphere during the, frequently surreal proceedings. The first one was predicated on an inquiry: “Where are the Democrats?” Why is Paul, a caricature of libertarian wackiness, willing to challenge the president on this crucial issue, while liberals sit on their hands?

This question lacks the necessary context. Who did progressives expect to show up? Elizabeth Warren, a fan of drone strikes and hawk on Iran, who had a campaign site that featured a page on Israel seemingly written by a member of AIPAC? Barbara Boxer, who didn’t vote on the nomination? Al Franken, who voted for Brennan? Bernie Sanders ended up voting against Brennan, but a filibuster over drones? The self-described “socialist” has worked, in conjunction with local politicians, to outsource political control of his state’s economy to military contractors.

At a certain point, liberals began waxing nostalgic for the late, sometimes great, Paul Wellstone. But why should we assume Wellstone would join a filibuster regarding this kind of overreach? He voted for the Patriot Act, after all. The only senator who voted against it was, of course, Russ Feingold. Feingold lost his Senate seat to the radical right-winger Ron Johnson in 2010, in an election that Obama’s enthusiastic base barely paid attention to.

Johnson actually spoke during the filibuster, prattling on about how Republicans aren’t, in fact, anti-woman or anti-minority. That is to say, he clearly showed up because someone told him he should and made it abundantly clear that he had no idea what the fuck anyone was talking about.

This brings us to the second theme of the evening: the consistent reminder that Rand Paul has bad politics and his cadre of supporters are, in fact, hypocrites.

Of course they are. Of course, many of these Republicans rushing to “Stand with Rand” have endorsed running the founding documents of our country through a paper shredder numerous times. Of course, they have been backing an expansion of the security state and a continuation of war for years. Of course, it’s beyond hilarious to see people like Palin, Ingraham, and Drudge stand up against the executive branch while maintaining a straight face.

Of course, it’s beyond hilarious to see people like Palin, Ingraham, and Drudge stand up against the executive branch while maintaining a straight face.

For starters, who cares? Where’s the contradiction here? As Salon’s Natasha Lennard tweeted, “We don't have to like Rand Paul, We don't have to like unlimited executive power and permanent state of exception. We can hate it all kids.”

Secondly, the fact that Paul was able to ignite so much support from those who would, usually, oppose such measures is kind of the entire point. These types of battles tend to boil down to inane partisan bickering. It's the stuff of DC gossip columns, not international law. By the way, after his Jay-Z quote, Rubio explained, "Well I don't know if it was all good a week ago, but I can tell you that things have really changed, because if the president was George W. Bush and this was a question being asked of him and his response was the silence we've gotten, we'd have a very different scenario here tonight.”

Yeah, no shit. No Republicans would be there, but, realistically, how many Democrats would even show up? Writing about the left-wing debate surrounding Rand Paul’s father, last year, political theorist Corey Robin articulated the issue perfectly. “Both sides are right," he wrote. "Not in a the-truth-lies-somewhere-in-between sort of way. Nor in a can’t-we-all-get-along sort of way. No, both sides are right in the sense that I laid out above: Ron Paul is unacceptable, and it’s unacceptable that we don’t have someone on the left who is raising the issues of imperialism, war and peace, and civil liberties in as visible and forceful a way.”

Many pundits have been trying to define exactly what a wacked-out senator filibustering the nomination of a CIA director connected to an illegal torture program says about contemporary American political culture. It says a whole lot. What does it say that Obama’s pick was nominated the next day, with both parties ultimately backing the draconian consensus? Everything.