Congress seems to be stepping into the vacuum left by the administration’s non-policy on Syria. At least it appears that way from the bipartisan vote yesterday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which voted 15-3 to approve a bill co-sponsored by chairman Robert Menendez and ranking minority member Bob Corker that calls for providing lethal aid to vetted rebel groups.
Committee members beat back objections from their colleague, Senator Rand Paul, who claimed that they were “rushing” to get involved in Syria–as if the U.S. hasn’t sat on the sidelines for more than two years.
Ask yourself the following question out loud: How will Marco Rubio vote on the current iteration of comprehensive immigration reform? If you’ve been following the immigration debate at all, the question probably sounds pretty silly. Rubio, after all, helped craft the bill after galvanizing momentum for it on the right while putting together a bipartisan coalition to stave off President Obama’s interference.
Rubio was front and center at the bill’s rollout, and he promptly made the rounds on conservative talk radio shows to stand between the reform bill and a very skeptical conservative grassroots audience. But perhaps in a sign of just how far the momentum has begun to swing in the opposite direction, apparently whether Rubio will vote for his own bill is actually up for debate. Buried in Politico’s feature today on the future of the bill is this nugget:
One of the obstacles to garnering support for comprehensive immigration reform is the federal government’s poor reputation for enforcing the laws on the books. Advocates for immigration reform correctly point out that the current system amounts to a kind of unofficial, but clear, amnesty for illegal immigrants. While that claim is often deployed in defense of the current immigration reform efforts, it does raise the seeming contradiction of the bill’s proponents acknowledging the government’s underwhelming track record while asking the public to believe the government will get it right this time.
This is a common problem for supporters of any major overhaul. When President Obama talked about offsetting Medicare provider cuts by rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse (that slippery target that perennially plays Road Runner to the government’s Wile E. Coyote), the obvious response was to ask him why they haven’t already simply eliminated the waste, fraud, and abuse if they know it’s there, and why they need a reform bill to do so at all. So it is with “securing the border” and other elements of immigration reform. And Marco Rubio, a member of the “gang of eight” senators behind the current immigration reform legislation, is conceding as much. Politico reports that, because of those concerns, Rubio doesn’t think his own bill could pass the House:
If Republican primary voters were huddled in a laboratory underground creating their ideal presidential candidate for the 2016 political climate, it’s easy to imagine this candidate’s resume. He would have grassroots bona fides, preferably by defeating an “establishment” Republican in a primary. He would come from a red state with a strong conservative political base. He would be able to blunt the party’s poor reputation among minorities. He would be unafraid to publicly challenge Democrats wherever he could find them. He would be a skilled debater. He would be young and telegenic. He would be connected to major party donors. He would have an Ivy League education. And he would provoke irrational hatred from the media.
He would be, basically, Ted Cruz. This fact is apparently not lost on many on the right, including Ted Cruz. National Review’s Robert Costa is out with a story today on the Cruz-in-2016 buzz. But there are some questions about a Cruz candidacy–aside from the one of his eligibility, since he was born in Canada to an American mother–that are more difficult to answer definitively than they may seem. The first question is: Though the speculation that he’ll run is good for his reputation, would actually running for president in 2016 be good for Ted Cruz’s career? Obviously, if he won the presidency the answer is yes. But because he’s a freshman senator with no real record in office yet, a general-election loss would make him a has-been before his first term is up.
Last month Rand Paul energized conservatives with a filibuster on the Senate floor that allowed a broad national audience to see him as a principled politician who was willing to fight for beliefs rather than go along with Washington’s business-as-usual culture. Some of us thought the rationale for his moment of glory—concerns about possible use of drones on U.S. soil as well as his general opposition to what he called a “perpetual war” against Islamist terrorists—were not justified. But even critics like myself thought his exhibition demonstrated that there is room for the sort of high-minded approach to public policy that was once considered normative in the U.S. Senate but which is now quite rare. But it didn’t take long for all of Paul’s speechifying about drones to be revealed as somewhat hypocritical.
Though the Kentucky senator spent 13 hours on his legs explaining to the Senate why there could be no conceivable justification for the use of government drones against American citizens on March 6, yesterday he took a position on Neil Cavuto’s show on Fox News that those of us who disagreed with him in the first place were advocating:
PAUL: Here’s the distinction, Neil. I’ve never argued against any technology being used when you have an imminent threat, an active crime going on. If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and 50 dollars in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him. But it’s different if they want to fly over your hot tub or your yard just because they want to do surveillance on everyone and they want to watch your activities.
CAVUTO: What if, in pursuit of a crime, they discover something else that looks bad?
PAUL: We shouldn’t be willy-nilly looking into everyone’s back yard into what they’re doing. But if there is a killer on the loose in a neighborhood, I’m not against drones being used to search them out, heat-seeking devices being used, I’m all for law enforcement, I’m just not for surveillance when there’s not probable cause that a crime’s been committed. So, most of the time, you get a warrant, but if someone’s actively running around with a gun, you don’t need a warrant. That’s the way the system works.
That sounds reasonable. But it’s not what he was saying seven weeks ago, when he held up the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan because Attorney General Eric Holder would not foreswear the possibility that there was any circumstance under which the government would use a drone against an American in the United States.
Since passing a Senate immigration bill with broad Republican support would vastly increase the chances of the bill passing the House, opponents of the proposed comprehensive immigration reform have been looking for an ally in the Senate GOP caucus to stall the bill. They have settled, it seems, on Ted Cruz. The freshman Texas senator is popular with the base and has consistently sought out ways to make his presence known in the upper chamber. He is also Hispanic, which–fairly or unfairly–makes it easier for him to oppose immigration reform.
But Cruz is not the most important voice in the Senate GOP on immigration–that distinction goes to Marco Rubio, who is crafting and selling the bill. Nor is Cruz the most important Republican outside the “gang of eight” who led efforts to put the bill together. Cruz is an important voice, for the reasons mentioned above. So is Paul Ryan–who plays a key role in House legislation and often serves as a bridge between the base and the House leadership–since the bill would have to pass the House after gaining the Senate’s approval. But those who want to get a sense of the fate awaiting the immigration bill should be watching Rand Paul.
Does the Chechen background of the accused Boston Marathon bombers have any practical relevance to American foreign or domestic policy in the wake of the attacks? The attempts to answer that question have produced a wave of stories over the past week. It is natural–and rational–to want to understand the motive behind an act of violence such as this. Motive, second only to means, is knowledge that usually has practical implications: if we know why the perpetrators did what they did, perhaps we can stop this from happening again. Unfortunately, in this case, Chechnya and the wider Caucasus conflict are unlikely to provide much direction.
As Jonathan noted on Friday, some opponents of comprehensive immigration reform are using the Boston bombing to call attention to the dangers of amnesty. But today Rand Paul entered the fray by asking why Chechens were able to immigrate at all. In a letter to Harry Reid, Paul writes: “Why did the current system allow two individuals to immigrate to the United States from the Chechen Republic in Russia, an area known as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, who then committed acts of terrorism? Were there any safeguards? Could this have been prevented? Does the immigration reform before us address this?”
The president’s push for a gun control bill in the Senate had many weaknesses–which is why it ultimately failed–but one of those weaknesses surely was the fact that the bill would never become law anyway. Gun control was doomed in the House, even if it passed the Senate. The same cannot be said, however, for comprehensive immigration reform. And while the “gang of eight” immigration proposal is far from a sure thing in either house of Congress, the stakes are so high precisely because it may succeed.
And that also helps explain the sense of urgency displayed by the Republican half of the gang of eight. Those four Republicans include two veterans of the pro-immigration reform wing of the GOP, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, as well as McCain’s Arizona colleague Jeff Flake and Marco Rubio. Politico reports on the efforts of the GOP gang members, especially Graham and Rubio, to get out in front by working to define the bill first and by making the rounds on conservative talk radio shows. Those programs were credited with galvanizing conservative grassroots opposition to the last major immigration reform push in 2007. According to Politico:
When confronted with the Republican Party’s poor standing among minority communities, GOP politicians have usually taken one of two approaches: claim these communities constitute “natural conservative constituencies” or advocate a broad change in policy or ideology to attract minority voters. Neither one of these tactics has been effective, for various reasons–chief among those reasons is that the communities under consideration are usually not “natural conservative constituencies.”
Take Hispanics, for example. It is often noted by GOP politicians that Hispanic immigrants are hard-working, family-oriented strivers who tend to be religious. That may be true, but polls showed that while Mitt Romney was generally trusted on the economy more than Barack Obama, Hispanics overwhelmingly trusted Obama on the economy. Whether or not Hispanics share a cultural or social conservatism with the GOP, then, becomes basically irrelevant. I wrote about one poll here that showed 73 percent of Hispanics preferred Obama to Romney on the economy, and 73 percent planned to vote for Obama. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.
Rand Paul’s filibuster has already taken on legendary status and been championed as a libertarian challenge to the Republican Party’s conservative establishment. But what is often ignored is how much of a challenge it was to Paul’s own libertarian following. Paul’s triumph was by its own success also a keen declaration of libertarian failure. To understand why, you’d have to have noticed a tweet in support of Paul that came at nearly 9 p.m., toward the tail end of the filibuster. Using the #StandWithRand hashtag, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson tweeted the following:
Johnson has close to 117,000 Twitter followers, and that tweet was retweeted almost 3,000 times. Yet I wonder how many noticed the irony. Johnson’s Twitter biography reads: “I am the Honorary Chairman of the Our America Initiative, two-term Governor of New Mexico, and was the 2012 Libertarian candidate for President.” It is that last part that tells the story of how Rand Paul is changing conservative politics.
Rand Paul couldn’t be more out of sync with the eight members of the bipartisan group of senators that presented an immigration reform plan in January. While he has little in common with the four Democrats, he is particularly at odds with three of the four Republicans in the group. Paul is already seen as one of the chief rivals of Marco Rubio in the 2016 presidential race. More than that, in the weeks since the plan was unveiled, the Kentucky senator has become embroiled in a public feud with John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Both ridiculed his filibuster about the possibility that the U.S. government could use drone attacks on American citizens and McCain even called Paul a “wacko bird.” But today Paul will announce his support for the key element of their immigration proposal that has drawn the most fire from conservatives: a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
While Paul is not endorsing the gang of eight’s draft, the plan he unveils this morning will be similar on the most contentious elements of the immigration debate. This shows that although Paul appears to be at war with the bulk of the GOP caucus on foreign policy and views the attempt of the Republican National Committee to streamline the presidential nominating process as a direct threat to his candidacy, he is on board with both groups when it comes to a key issue on which many in the party believes it must change if it is to have a chance to win national elections in the future.
The New York Times jumps into the lingering Rand Paul vs. the Establishment storyline today, purporting to examine what Paul’s popularity portends for the future of the GOP’s foreign policy. But in truth, such stories have been able to paint this as a significant rift within the party only by utilizing the same selective vagueness that Paul himself employs when discussing political ideology. Some of this is, of course, natural and understandable–at least on Paul’s part–because a worldview must have overarching principles.
But what Paul’s foreign policy would mean in practice is incredibly unclear in the Times piece. It devotes more than a thousand words to the subject and still manages to paint an extremely and frustratingly incomplete picture. This is to Paul’s benefit. Only a selective reading of history–by both Paul and the New York Times–gives the appearance of a philosophical divide in which the two sides are more evenly balanced than they really are. For example, the Times writes:
The CPAC conference has come in for a lot of justified criticism about excluding popular Republicans like Governors Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell. The annual right-wing jamboree is being trashed in the mainstream media as the living, breathing example of why the GOP loses elections since it is oriented toward ideological activists rather than expanding the party’s big tent. But such jibes miss the point about the event. It is by and for the party’s base, not independents, and like any similar gathering of liberal Democrats the response of participants to speakers is a fair measure of what will fire up the people who will do the groundwork in any future election. While the Republicans need to work at recasting their image if they are to win the White House again, no party can succeed without being able to energize their core supporters.
That’s why one shouldn’t dismiss the cheers received today at CPAC by two of the leading contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination as mere noise. Both Marco Rubio and Rand Paul were in good form, articulating some of their favorite themes to the faithful. But while Rubio’s speech seemed aimed exactly at those swing voters, or at least those who might be persuaded to back a presentable Republican, Paul’s remarks—like his filibuster earlier this month—seemed geared more toward winning over the people who vote in Republican primaries. While Rubio’s speech was on point and well received, there isn’t much doubt about who is the senator that can best be described as the GOP flavor of the month.
Last week I wrote about the entertaining series of stories in which reporters asked Senate Democrats why they didn’t stand with Rand Paul during his filibuster of John Brennan over civil liberties concerns. I noted that congressional Democrats judge foreign policy stands on partisanship alone, and the Democrats’ confused responses to reporters last week signaled they thought reporters were in on the joke.
But there are Democrats outside of government starting to pipe up on the issue of drones and secrecy, and it suggests Paul’s filibuster was even more successful from a publicity standpoint than it seemed at the time. This is because when it began, Paul’s concentration on the seemingly farfetched possibility that the government would drone critics like Jane Fonda as they sat in Starbucks left the initial impression that the filibuster was going to be a political theater of the absurd. But Paul proved many doubters wrong not only by attracting other politicians and rallying support on Twitter, but because the drone-Fonda case highlighted something that made people uneasy: if the federal government couldn’t or wouldn’t clearly deny its right to zap nonviolent people on American soil, was there anything the Obama administration would rule out?
As Max wrote earlier, there is a growing divide in the Republican Party with regard to foreign aid that reflects a broader philosophical divergence on the right. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul are both Tea Party-generation fiscal conservatives, but in the past they have approached foreign policy from different angles–Rubio from an interventionist point of view and Paul from a pro-disengagement perspective. So it was surely a victory for Paul when Rubio took to the floor of the Senate last week to support Paul’s 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination over the use of drones.
But one senator who wasn’t at the filibuster was New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte. Like Rubio, Ayotte is a fiscal conservative who has made her name on foreign affairs. Unlike Rubio, however, Ayotte can’t so easily distance herself from the party’s old guard, which has been openly feuding with Paul since the filibuster. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have sought to portray Paul as outside the mainstream–a “wacko bird,” in McCain’s unfortunate phrasing–further alienating the pair from the party’s conservative base, which rallied to Paul’s defense during the filibuster. McCain and Graham have also been mentors to Ayotte, who seems to have replaced former Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman in the “three amigos.” The Hill today takes a look at Ayotte’s predicament:
A battle is going on for the future of Republican foreign policy. At one end of the spectrum stand the isolationists–or, if they prefer, non-interventionists–like Rand Paul. The Kentucky senator has incredibly enough has called for the elimination of all foreign aid–a policy that, if ever implemented, would decrease American clout in the world and leave allies dangerously exposed. His message resonates with some in these days of war-weariness and budget insolvency. But his policies are extremely dangerous–not only for the United States and the world but also for the Republican Party which, if it were to embrace the Paulian gospel, would return to its irrelevancy of the 1930s.
Luckily Paul does not speak for the majority of Republicans–not even close. Luckily, too, there are smart voices emerging in the party to provide a principled voice for American leadership in the world. Foremost among the new contributors to the debate is Senator Marco Rubio, who has defended the utility of foreign aid in general while not being afraid to condition U.S. assistance on the achievement of U.S. foreign policy objectives.
Political myths often persist not only in the face of revisionist history but also despite relying on a logically unsustainable contradiction to begin with. This is certainly the case with regard to the modern left’s exhortations for President Obama to run against the “do-nothing Republican Congress” in the model of Harry Truman, while also castigating Republicans for abandoning the halcyon era of bipartisanship and allowing politics to stop at the water’s edge, personified by Arthur Vandenberg. It is never quite explained how the Vandenberg-led congressional Republicans could give Truman massive assistance in essentially constructing the post-war American state—an accomplishment on which Truman heavily based his reelection campaign—while also being “do-nothing” and uncooperative to a fault.
Bloomberg’s Al Hunt is the latest to build his judgment of the current era on this shaky foundation. He laments in his latest column the fall of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by the Democrat Bob Menendez. Menendez is embroiled in a political scandal in which he is accused of corruption, and the allegations alone, Hunt says, will hurt the committee’s credibility and influence on the administration and the broader public. The Foreign Relations Committee, Hunt writes, has a storied history of shaping bipartisan American foreign policy and also providing oversight to keep the president in check. Hunt writes:
As I wrote on Friday, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham didn’t do themselves any good this week when they angrily trashed Senator Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster about drone attacks on the Senate floor. Sounding like angry old men telling the kids to get off their lawn isn’t the best way to respond to an event that galvanized the country and inspired admiration from both the right and the left. But rather than turn down the heat, McCain doubled down on his critique when he subsequently referred to Paul, Senator Ted Cruz and fellow libertarian Rep. Justin Amash as “wacko birds” in an interview with the Huffington Post that was published subsequent to his Senate remarks.
It should be understood that the Arizonan firing from the hip in this manner is just McCain being McCain. He doesn’t pull his punches, and, as is well known among those who have worked with him in the Senate, his lack of tolerance for those politicians who don’t measure up to his standards or who just annoy him is legendary.
But at this point that remark will do McCain more harm than it will the targets of his wrath. It will be seen as yet another indication that McCain and others who agree with him just don’t understand why Paul’s filibuster struck a nerve with so many in his party’s grass roots and inspired the admiration of many on the other side of the aisle as well. The word “wacko” signifies a lack of seriousness and the idea that those who fit the description are out of the political mainstream. The problem is that McCain, Graham and others who oppose Paul’s foreign policy views don’t seem to grasp that what is happening now is not merely excrescence of a marginal movement but the beginning of a serious policy debate about what Republicans believe about foreign policy. And the sooner he, and others who don’t want the GOP to drift away from being the party that stands for a strong America on the international stage, stop dismissing their opponents and start engaging them on the issues the better off they and the country will be.
I wanted to associate myself with Jonathan’s insightful post on the response by Senators McCain and Graham to Rand Paul’s filibuster.
Although my views on national security are much closer to those of McCain and Graham, their sneering, bitter attacks on Senator Paul were not only misguided; they have done a great deal to help the Paul-ian cause.
Senators McCain and Graham could have–should have–offered a careful, measured response to Rand Paul’s argument. Instead, McCain in particular has gone on a petty, mocking rant, including referring to Paul and some who supported him as “wacko birds.” Perhaps this is what happens when a maverick is out-mavericked. Read More
There were several surprising moments in Rand Paul’s 13-hour talking filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA. But there was one aspect of it that wasn’t surprising at all: Democrats ignored or dismissed it (with the exception of Ron Wyden). Reporters began asking Democrats where they were. You would think, the assumption went, that there would be plenty of Democrats–who were, after all, able to muster a lifetime’s worth of outrage at George Bush–who would feel right at home defending civil liberties from a wartime president.
Buzzfeed published a story getting some pretty weak excuses from Democrats in the Senate. It’s worth reading their explanations while keeping in mind the Democrats’ favorite manufactured storyline–that Republicans are so consumed by partisanship that they won’t even stand with Democrats who agree with them. But by far the best comment comes from this Huffington Post piece on how the liberal network MSNBC covered the filibuster. Aside from Rachel Maddow, who chose principle over partisanship, MSNBC’s viewers were treated to quite a spectacle: