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Rand Paul’s Moment of Glory

After nearly 13 hours of the first real filibuster in many years, Rand Paul yielded the floor of the U.S. Senate last night shortly before 1 a.m. to tumultuous applause. I don’t share the Kentucky senator’s concerns about the “perpetual war” that al-Qaeda is waging against the West or the use of drones in that conflict. Nor do I believe that the rule of law is at risk in the unwillingness of the attorney general to rule out a hypothetical instance when it might be prudent to use a drone against a U.S. citizen on American soil–though it is difficult to imagine a scenario where that might be legal or necessary. Though I’m deeply sympathetic to the worries that he and other Republicans have about the unchecked expansion of government power, I think the obligation of the executive branch to defend the homeland means it must be granted far greater latitude than Paul is comfortable with.

But along with millions of others who followed the filibuster throughout the day and into the night, I had to admire Paul’s determination as well as the principled manner with which he conducted himself. During his long moment on our national stage, he set an example for other politicians and taught us again that there is still space in our public square for the sort of high-minded approach to public policy that we once associated with the Senate. It was no surprise that throughout the day many other Republicans, and even Democrat Ron Wyden, joined Paul on the floor giving his voice a rest (even if he could not sit down) and allowing them to share a bit of his glory. Paul probably will not succeed in getting the administration to budge on the issue of drones or stop the confirmation of John Brennan as director of the C.I.A., whose nomination Paul was filibustering. But over the course of those 13 hours he made it clear that he is no longer just a libertarian outlier with a fringe following like his extremist father. Whether you like him or not, there’s no escaping the conclusion that he is a Republican star of the first magnitude who will be a first-tier contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Paul deserves enormous credit for having the courage to pull off such a stunt in an era where real filibusters of the “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” style are anachronisms. It took audacity to seize the floor and hold it, albeit with some help from a few friends, and to make his point about drones and the Constitution the focus of the Capitol’s attention. Though his real goal was not so much to derail Brennan’s nomination as to use it as pretext to highlight this issue, Paul was right in the sense that it was entirely appropriate for the Senate to avoid a rush to confirmation of a candidate whose views on any number of security issues are questionable. Watching Paul’s stand with admiration, I could only think how much I wished his colleagues had possessed the guts to do the same thing when Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense was up for debate. Hagel, whose qualifications and out-of-the-mainstream views made him far less suitable for high office than Brennan, truly should have been filibustered and it’s a shame that no senator had the intestinal fortitude to do it then.

The point here is that no one who witnessed Rand Paul’s performance will soon forget the articulate and intelligent manner with which he conducted his filibuster (there was no reading of the U.S. Constitution as in “Mr. Smith,” even if Paul’s ally Ted Cruz did quote inspiring passages from Shakespeare’s “Henry V” and recited William Barrett Travis’s last letter from the Alamo). In a sea of congressional mediocrity he stood out as someone who might have fit in nicely with the legendary giants of the Senate of an earlier era. Even those of us who have grave concerns with his approach to foreign policy and think his point about drone attacks may needlessly feed paranoia about the potential for constitutional abuses had to admire him yesterday. After this, no one should underestimate his chances of leading the Republican Party in the future.