Rand Paul scored a big win yesterday, but not against President Obama.
Yesterday's losers included Senator Mitch McConnell and Senator Marco Rubio - and all the other Republican senators Paul bent to his will.
Paul's filibuster ostensibly dealt only with a very remote hypothetical contingency: targeted killings on American soil of Americans who present no imminent threat to national security. Paul insisted that all the harder questions be taken off the table. He had (he said) no issue with a targeted killing on American soil of an American who did present an imminent threat. He avoided the issue of the targeted killings of Americans outside the United States - i.e., the actual real-world problem at hand.
Instead, Paul invoked a nightmare out of a dystopian future: an evil future president shooting a missile at an American having coffee in a neighborhood cafe, merely on suspicion, without any due process of law.
I think we can all agree that such a case would be pretty deplorable. It is also far-fetched.
The question raised by Paul has the form of one of a dorm-room brain-teaser: "Well, would you be justified in stealing the loaf of broad if your children were starving and if there were no jobs even for the most diligent worker and if no social services or charity existed to help you out?"
The true answer to Paul's question was delivered by Rep. Mike Rogers in Politico this morning:
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan called the day’s discussion in the Senate “irresponsible.”
“It would be unconstitutional for the U.S. military or intelligence services to conduct lethal counterterrorism operations in the United States against U.S. citizens,” Rogers said. “I would never allow such operations to occur on my watch."
So if Paul's question is no question at all, why pose it at such considerable length?
The answer is that Paul emerges from a milieu in which far-fetched scenarios don't seem far-fetched at all. Paul specifically mentioned the possibility of a democratically elected Adolph Hitler like figure coming to power in the United States. Looming federal tyranny - against which the only protection is an armed citizenry - is a staple item in the Rand Paul inventory of urgent concerns.
Most Republican senators don't share this nightmarish vision of their country, thank goodness. But they do answer to an activist base that shares a nightmarish vision of President Obama. Rand Paul stipulated that he did not intend his remarks about a Hitler-like president to apply to the present president. But he must have a pretty fair idea of what his core constituency hears when he talks about looming tyranny - and so of course must the Republican senators who joined him at the rostrum.
They saw Rand Paul's Twitter following jump. Perhaps they sensed a great fundraising bonanza at hand. Where Rand Paul led, other Republicans followed: some out of conviction, some out of opportunism, and some out of fear.
Since 2008, the party has executed a huge about-face on issues of executive power and national security. Yesterday marked an important pivot in that complex maneuver. I worry it won't be the last.
An optimist might say:
"David, there's no need to worry. It's the normal cycle of politics. We steered the ship of state too far in the direction of executive power after 9/11. Now we need a course correction. And since the Republicans have begun to lose presidential elections more often than they win, it's no surprise that they should have rediscovered congressional prerogatives. The same thing happened back in the 1970s and 1980s, when old Kennedy and Johnson hands suddenly began to lament the 'imperial presidency.' Now it's happening in reverse. It will reverse itself again - when, and if, Republicans resume winning national elections."
History, however, does not cycle so neatly. Something more than ordinary partisanship is driving this switcheroo. The alienation and fear to which Rand Paul spoke in the Senate yesterday - the alienation and fear that shapes the political environment to which Marco Rubio and Mitch McConnell must adapt - comes from some deeper and more tangled place than disappointment at the outcome of an election.
Executive assassinations, hyperinflation leading to populist dictatorships, ordinary Americans protecting themselves by launching insurgencies against the state - these are themes of Rand Paul's politics, now endorsed by his Republican Senate colleagues. Out of what doom-haunted imagination are such dark fantasies born? The Republican party used to be the party more serious about defending America. Now it provides a home to those more doubtful that America is worth defending.