Hooray for Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who held the Senate floor for 13 hours on Wednesday in a good old-fashioned talking filibuster. If nothing else, he created—like Sen. Bernie Sanders before him—a startling piece of political theater: We’re so used to being cynical about politicians that when one stands on principle, Twitter comes to a halt so we can gawk and comment.
Twitter was integral to the filibuster this time in a way it had never been in the Senate’s previous 200-some-years of history. At one point, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz interrupted Paul’s filibuster to read a series of tweets—each hashtagged “Stand With Rand”—in support. At my house, where we had C-SPAN running online to listen to Paul’s speech, my four-year-old son grew increasingly giggly every time Cruz concluded “Stand With Rand,” until finally he couldn’t help himself: “STANDFORRAND!” he yelled, and laughed. “STANDFORRAND!” It was hilarious. Filibusters, it turns out, can be great family entertainment.
There are three other lessons we should take from Paul’s filibuster:
• IT WASN’T CRAZY: Paul’s reason for filibustering the nomination of proposed CIA director John Brennan was simple: He wanted an affirmation from the Obama Administration that it is unconstitutional to use drones to attack non-combatant American citizens on U.S. soil. Paul used some extreme examples of how such power could be used—no, Rand, nobody’s going to drop a Hellfire missile on the Libertarian convention—leaving him open to Sen. John McCain’s criticism that Paul’s filibuster was “ridiculous.”
But Paul’s concern was grounded in the real world: The U.S. has assassinated American citizens abroad, folks who weren’t directly engaged in combat at the time; we don’t know what rules (outside of President Obama’s gut instincts) govern such attacks, and what limits them. Paul, to his credit, managed to get the administration to identify a limitation: No attacks of non-combatants on American soil. Good for him.
• DEMS CAN’T COUNT ON THE CIVIL LIBERTIES VOTE ANYMORE: During the Bush Administration’s conduct of the War on Terror, it was pretty clear that Democrats were on the side of the ACLU and other civil liberties groups fighting torture, warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention and other abuses. These days? Not so much.
Yes, liberals and liberal-tarians like Glenn Greenwald, Adam Serwer, and Marcy Wheeler have kept up examination and criticism of the Obama Administration’s seeming civil liberties abuses in the name of fighting terrorism. The Democratic establishment? Let’s just say we don’t see Nancy Pelosi criticizing the president anymore. That means Democrats can no longer depend on civil liberties voters the way they did in 2008, and that somebody like Rand Paul—despite his unattractive positions on many other matters—could attract those voters to the GOP in the future. It’s a constituency Dems take for granted, and shouldn’t.
What’s more, liberals should feel free to work with Rand Paul on this issue, even if they want to oppose him on all others. Some well-meaning lefties want nothing to do with Rand until he becomes a liberal, but that’s silly: In democratic politics, you take your allies where you can find them, for as long as you can find them, even if it turns out you’ll be opposing them the next day. Demanding complete ideological compatibility is a great way to get nothing done, ever.
• FILIBUSTER RULES SHOULD BE CHANGED: These days, of course, talking filibusters are almost never used. Instead, some senator files a piece of paperwork using the word “filibuster,” and suddenly work in the Senate grinds to a halt—sometimes it’s nominations that are stalled, sometimes it’s a bill, but rarely does it require any effort to mount a filibuster.
The Senate rules should require that filibusters be talking filibusters. For one thing, they’d be more rare—making it easier to actually get the country’s business done—but they can also be amazing when they happen. I’m not sure if I want to know if Strom Thurmond’s 24-hour filibuster against civil rights legislation helped grow support for his position; I do know that Paul’s filibuster helped spread awareness of drone policy. In this age of digital media, changing the filibuster rules might lead to more infrequent use of the tool, but create a more powerful impact when they actually do happen.
At the very least, it’ll make filibusters far more entertaining to four-year-olds.