From afar, it seemed as though Rand Paul were addressing a crowded stadium.
His voice boomed through the Senate chamber on Wednesday afternoon as he argued against the reauthorization of the Patriot Act during what he described as a filibuster. “We think collecting everyone’s phone records all the time without suspicions is sort of like a general warrant,” he said of himself and his allies on the issue, like fellow Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR). “We think that the American people also believe this.”
Up close, the production felt much smaller than that.
The Kentucky senator was, in fact, addressing a nearly vacant room. He stood mostly alone, but often flanked on either side by an aide, behind a row of desks. Three binders of notes, highlighted in yellow and blue and bookmarked with Post-Its, were arrayed in front of him across three desks.
He fiddled with two pairs of eyeglasses, placing one pair in a drawer; he changed from leather Cole Haan dress shoes into gray running sneakers (keeping the dress shoes underneath the desk); he refused the glass of water in front of him, which was regularly refreshed by a staffer.
He yammered on and on, sometimes stopping to breathe and rest his voice by allowing a guest star, like Wyden or Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), to echo his anti-spying sentiment. Small groups of visitors filed in and out to peer from the balcony at the tiny spectacle beneath them.
But for all the pomp, this was not the filibuster Paul said it was.
“A true filibuster,” Bloomberg Politics’ David Weigel noted, “comes during a debate on the bill that the senator or senators involved are trying to block and occurs when those senators rise to speak and refuse to yield the floor.” There was no debate under way when Paul took the floor around 1:30 p.m. and tweeted, “I’ve just taken the senate floor to begin a filibuster of the Patriot Act renewal. It’s time to end the NSA spying!”
Whether Paul’s speech, which ended 10 hours and 30 minutes after it began, is a filibuster is irrelevant. The event Paul manufactured was about making a point for the purpose of reinforcing a brand—not stalling a vote. Paul’s opposition to government spying and mass-data collection is arguably the single most important issue for his credibility as the leader of the so-called liberty movement, and by no great extension his presidential campaign itself.
Paul’s reputation as a libertarian-leaning conservative has taken some hits in recent months, as he has made compromises to endear himself (or at the very least not completely terrify) mainstream primary voters. Paul’s consistent, unwavering opposition to big-government Big Brother is one of his few remaining positions that puts him in total opposition to more traditional Republican presidential hopefuls like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, both of whom favor robust mass data collection operations (and both of whom, I should mention, are not yet announced candidates).
Paul’s last filibuster, in 2013, wasn’t very real, either. Although that one did stall votes, it also had the distinction of being what you might call a Seinfeld filibuster—a filibuster about nothing. Paul took to the floor for 13 hours to filibuster the nomination of John Brennan to lead the CIA because the Obama administration hadn’t said whether it would use drones against American citizens on American soil, something that was not at the time and has never been U.S. policy.
That didn’t matter, in the end. The stunt solidified Paul’s status as a rising star in the GOP with an anti-big government message, and it put him at odds with old-guard Republicans like John McCain, who criticized the filibuster as a “distortion of the threats we face.” (Paul later outright supported the Obama administration’s drone policy, after it was announced in April 2015 that a drone strike left an American hostage dead in Pakistan.)
It also may not matter, in the end, that Wednesday’s filibuster technically wasn’t one, because this whatever-it-is was about an issue that does actually exist.
In 2013, a Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans disapproved, and just 37 percent of Americans approved, of NSA surveillance programs. Republicans, the poll revealed, disapprove of the program “by almost a 2 to 1 margin,” according to The Washington Post, while Democrats remained divided. But perhaps even more important than that for Paul is that in 2006, more Republicans than Democrats approved of the NSA’s spying, meaning that Paul’s party has, for years, been steadily moving toward his position on the issue as government spying has become a mainstream topic of debate with the revelations disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Paul has been so unwavering in his opposition to NSA surveillance as to be unreasonable. It was only in November that Paul helped sink the USA Freedom Act, which would have ended the bulk collection of metadada that Paul claims to particularly detest. The senator claimed he couldn’t help move that bill along because he couldn’t, in good conscience, vote for something that reauthorized any part of the Patriot Act, though the majority of the sections of the Patriot Act don’t have expiration dates, and therefore don’t require reauthorization.
But never mind that!
On the steps of the Capitol at 6 p.m., after Paul had been speaking for more than five hours, about 20 self-described “grassroots” supporters formed a semi-circle. Most of them wore T-shirts that read “STAND WITH RAND,” and they held placards emblazoned with Paul’s honest-to-god slogan, “Defeat the Washington machine; Unleash the American dream.”
The liberal wind came for one of the signs, and a T-shirt-wearing supporter sprinted through the parking lot after it.
On Twitter, Paul has shared messages from those who support #StandWithRand. Many of them are cat people, apparently.
Paul asked those who want to “Join Us” to “Text: ‘FILIBUSTER’ to 97063.” After doing so, I received a message that read, “Rand2016-Thanks for your support! Click to continue: t2d.cc/d0e2 STOP to quit HELP for info Msg&DataRatesMayApply”
The link brought me to voterlabs.com, which asked for my first name and last name, and then, hilariously, all of my personal information: street address, city, state, ZIP code, email address (optional).
Back inside the Capitol, Paul leaned hard on the desk in front of him. It was going to be a long night.