When Senator Rand Paul ended his nearly 13-hour filibuster of President Obama’s nominee for CIA director — to visit the restroom — Republicans were ecstatic. They’d found a way to attack President Obama from the left on drone policy while mentioning the Constitution, Jane Fonda and Hitler over and over.
It was like a Tea Party fever dream come to life on C-SPAN 2.
For some on the left, including The Nation‘s Jeremy Scahill, The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald, Esquire‘s Charles Pierce, Mother Jones‘ Adam Serwer, and Marcy Wheeler — many of whom Paul cited from the Senate floor — the junior senator from Kentucky was opportunely raising the issue of extrajudicial killings in a way their years of journalism could not. Other progressives joined Republicans in standing with Rand, knowing if a Republican ever got into the White House, it would be too late to check the broad executive power that’s been unfurled in the war against al Qaeda.
CNN’s Van Jones tried to explain how he could support a man who opposed federal civil rights legislation and a woman’s right to choose, even in cases of rape, with his essay, “Rand Paul, a civil liberties hero and civil rights villain.”
For a party desperately in search of a rebranding, Senator Paul’s Code Pink-endorsed leftward lunge finally gave them a moment in the sun – even if it was the middle of the night and their hero was a guy whose pet issues include low-flow toilets and imaginary currencies.
That unfettered joy lasted mere hours.
The next morning, senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham crawled out of the balcony, where they usually sit criticizing the other Muppets and mumbling about Benghazi, to hobble out to the Senate floor. They then proceeded to repeat nearly verbatim a Wall Street Journal op-ed criticizing Paul’s “drone rant.”
“Senator McCain is obviously well aware of the politics of this — he just doesn’t care,” one of McCain’s aides told BuzzFeed. “He’s doing what he thinks is right. Unlike many of these guys, he’s actually been involved in a few national security debates over the years. He knows that jumping on the Rand Paul black helicopters crazytrain isn’t good for our party or our country, no matter what Twitter says.”
On the floor of the Senate, the distinguished gentleman from Arizona was only slightly less subtle.
“All I can say is that I don’t think that what happened yesterday is helpful to the American people,” McCain said.
“Somehow to allege that the United States of America – our government – will drop a drone hellfire missile on Jane Fonda, that brings the conversation from a serious discussion about U.S. policy to the realm of the ridiculous,” he added.
Ah, the realm of the ridiculous.
How did we ever end up in such a realm?
If Senator McCain had been on Twitter Wednesday night instead of out to dinner with President Obama, he might have gotten a little reminder of how the Republican Party has become a haven for neo-McCarthyites who favor incendiary rhetoric and rely on email forwards for research.
Proud to #standwithrand since 2009. GOP, we need more courage like this!
— Sarah Palin (@SarahPalinUSA) March 7, 2013
If John McCain wants to understand how Republicans so quickly evolved in into a party that elevates its fringe to positions of national prominence, I have two words for him: Sarah Palin.
Of course, Sarah Palin would likely never have become a reality star if John McCain hadn’t deliberated for the entire length of a visit to the bathroom before deciding she was his only hope of becoming president.
Could Rand Paul have ever been elected to the Senate without Sarah Palin? Maybe so.
His father, former congressman Ron Paul, was actually the focus of the original Tea Party that complained about spending even when George W. Bush was in the White House. But that Tea Party never got on TV.
In 2009, when the GOP was desperately in need of a new image, Fox News promoted – literally promoted – the Tea Party as a nonpartisan reaction to high taxes, though taxes were at a half-century low. Viewers were told that it wasn’t about social issues, it was about whatever they imagined the Constitution said.
When Sarah Palin quit her job as governor of Alaska on July 4, 2009, she quickly joined Fox News and became the spokesperson for this new movement. She also put her name and fundraising weight behind insurgent candidates like Paul.
By the time the Tea Party hit Washington D.C., it was clear to anyone who cared to think about it for longer than a quick trip to the restroom that the Tea Party was just the crazier half of the 2008 Republican ticket.
Of course, I’m not saying John McCain is sane.
This is a guy whose 2012 Republican National Convention speech was basically a list of the wars that President Obama should have started. There virtually aren’t any rebels on Earth – from Syria to UNLV – that Senator McCain doesn’t want to arm. Beyond being a neoconservative with a goal of spreading democracy, McCain and Graham are old-fashioned hawks who think America can and should win every war.
“They think the whole world is a battlefield, including America, and that the ‘laws’ of war should apply,” Rand Paul said Friday.
Paul’s right. Limiting the scope of the so-called war on terror has been nearly impossible because McCain and Graham’s view has predominated in Washington and been adopted by Democrats in the Senate and the White House out of fear of losing the left’s hard-won advantage on national security.
Rand Paul’s attempt to limit unchecked executive power to prosecute this war is a good thing – though the GOP only clearly supported him because it was done in the process of protesting a presidential appointment. They didn’t care that the president’s nominee for the CIA was a former Bush appointee who could have easily been nominated for the same position by a President Mitt Romney. It was anti-Obama and that was good enough for them.
But John McCain sensed that something bigger was afoot.
In these reckless Tea Partiers, these Frankenstein’s monsters of his Frankenstein’s monster, there is a reluctance to wage endless war. Just as there is in the appointment of former Republican senator and Iraq War critic Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. Just as there is in the Republicans’ sudden willingness to accept the defense cuts in the sequester.
Americans are sick of war. And they’re so sick of it that they’re even willing to cheer Rand Paul to make that clear. Even if 4 of the Republican Senators who joined Paul’s filibuster voted in favor of the indefinite detention of American citizens. And even if Paul himself doesn’t support trying terrorists in civilian courts, as most civil libertarians do, and he followed up his filibuster by submitting a nearly meaningless drone bill.
Republicans need to attract young voters and they think supporting Rand Paul is a way to do that. But the next generation of Republicans may share their conservative Christian hatred of Obama, but they’re also mostly just libertarians who don’t own bongs.
These new Tea Party Republicans are even willing to cut defense and criticize executive power – at least when a Democrat is in office. All they have do is nod and they can take down the minority leader of the Senate with a primary challenge.
And if John McCain doesn’t understand how we got to this point, he should watch the movie Game Change.
Photo credit: Rachael Dickson via Flickr.com