Yesterday, Senator Rand Paul stood firmly for his beliefs on the floor of the Senate. As a result, portions of the USA PATRIOT Act have been allowed to lapse today. Whether you think this is a tragedy, a victory, or even an absolute farce depends on your feelings for (or against) both the National Security Agency's metadata surveillance program and Senator Paul himself. But while others are debating the finer points of government surveillance, I'd instead prefer to focus on Paul's political tactics. Because, from where I'm sitting, Paul is to be admired and commended for both standing on principle and for using his position in the Senate to show the other candidates what actual (as opposed to rhetorical) leadership truly means.
Now, don't get me wrong -- I am not one of the "stand with Rand" bunch. I'm not endorsing either his candidacy or even his position on this particular issue. Instead, I'm merely offering up my own analysis and opinion on his tactics, of which I do approve. To do otherwise would be hypocritical of me, in fact.
Let's create a hypothetical scenario, to show what I mean by that. Let's say the USA PATRIOT Act has come up for renewal, with a deadline looming. Let's further say that the Senate and the House are held by only one party, so the real fight is happening within the majority party. One senator so strongly objects to the proposed renewal that he lets his majority leader know that he'll filibuster it -- and not just by cloture vote, but that he'll even be willing to launch a real live "talking filibuster" to stop it. But after much drama -- which includes the spectacle of major presidential candidates (who are currently-sitting senators) ducking the issue in a major way -- the reauthorization is eventually passed.
This may sound like I'm describing the current situation in the Senate, but I'm not. Instead, I'm referring to a fight which happened from December of 2007 through February of 2008. Democrats held both the House and the Senate, at the time. The Democratic senator who threatened a red-meat filibuster was Chris Dodd, who had been running for president but had dropped out by this point. John Edwards, who still was in the running for president (but who was not a currently-sitting senator), spoke out in support of Dodd's position. Sitting senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, though, were virtually silent during the whole debate. When the final vote was held, both Obama and Clinton were not even present to cast a vote. Not exactly profiles in courage. Here's what I wrote, at the time:
It is worth noting that the usual excuse of being "on the campaign trail" does not apply here, because today's primaries (Maryland, D.C. itself, and Virginia) are all a stone's throw from the Senate chamber. So where was Hillary? So much for "leadership" and "experience" and all of that -- she was too chicken to put her votes on the record, in fear of them being used against her later in the campaign. Obama likewise has no excuse for missing the final vote, which just brings up the subject of his numerous "present" votes in Illinois all over again. And neither candidate has even mentioned the issue at all in a recent speech, as far as I know. Here is an excellent opportunity for the Democratic Party's leading candidates for president to show us exactly how they'd stand up to Bush and the Republicans... and there is a resounding silence from both of them. This does not bode well for what either of them would do as leader of our country, I have to say.
Before the vote was even held, I had all but begged Clinton and Obama to get involved, in fact:
I would be a lot more willing to vote for either one of you as presidential candidates if you got out in front of this issue, took a stand, and defended it to the public. Which means -- if you choose -- you could show all of us your leadership skills. And challenge Bush administration policies at the same time. Isn't that what you're trying to convince us that you would do as president? So why not start now?
This is why I applaud Rand Paul today. Because he is leading on an issue that is near and dear to his political philosophy. You may not agree with where he's leading, and you may not think this is going to help him politically in the Republican primaries, but you've got to at least admit that he is indeed showing leadership on the issue. And that, to me, is admirable.
There are arguments to be made that Rand Paul is just cynically grandstanding and using the entire issue as a way to raise campaign cash from his followers. There is also an argument to be made that the Senate isn't the proper place for what used to (derisively) be called "electioneering." I don't buy any of those arguments, really. The only one of these arguments that has any real validity is the grandstanding one, because after all Paul's efforts last night, the new House-approved "USA FREEDOM Act" bill is still going to pass in the Senate (it got a whopping 77 votes to proceed, far more than the 60 it needed). So all he's managed to do is to cause a few days delay in the N.S.A. metadata program. But to Rand Paul, this is a personal crusade. He hasn't come to this issue suddenly, he's always advocated a libertarian approach to government surveillance. So to him, even shutting the program down for two or three days is a moral and personal victory.
The other arguments are just silly. Rand Paul is raising money off a contentious issue? Gasp! The horror! Except for the fact that pretty much every other candidate running will at some point do precisely the same thing, that is. They'll do it on different issues, but this is really a core feature of American politics. "I'm for/against this, please donate to my campaign" is about as humdrum as it gets, really. The other argument is one of unseemliness, at its core. Call it the "Miss Manners" argument -- the Senate is so downright pure a forum for reasoned and sober debate that we simply cannot have members demagogue and bluster in some cheap attempt to score political points. Um, what century does this argument come from, precisely? Plus, it's not like the Senate is known for getting all that much done these days anyway, so why not use the floor as a forum for politicking?
Compare what Rand Paul just did with another recent situation in the Senate. Two sitting senators -- Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz -- have a core issue which they feel very strongly about (which is understandable, given their own personal histories): U.S./Cuban relations. Both have strongly denounced taking Cuba off America's "state sponsors of terrorism" list. John Kerry announced he would be doing so over a month and a half ago, and then there was a mandated 45-day period, where Congress could have acted to overturn Kerry's decision. Not only did Congress not do so, neither Cruz nor Rubio led any major effort to scuttle Kerry's plan. Last week, Kerry announced that the waiting period was over and Cuba was off the list. Whether you agree with the position of Cruz and Rubio or not, would the fact that they essentially did nothing in the Senate when they had a chance -- on one of their core issues, mind you -- make you more or less likely to support them as a presidential candidate?
Both cases offered opportunities to show leadership. Not only leadership in general, but leadership within the party (the whole government surveillance fight was essentially fought between Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, in fact). Rubio and Cruz did not take this opportunity. Rand Paul just did.
It has always baffled me when politicians running for president (especially those sitting in the Senate) throw away their biggest bully pulpit. It astonished me when Clinton and Obama did so, eight years ago. You'd think that a presidential candidate would gladly use one of the biggest microphones in the country to show political leadership, but in many cases, you'd be wrong. Many presidential candidates actively struggle with being noticed by the public, this early in the race. They'd probably give their eyeteeth for a platform as big as the U.S. Senate to use to fight for one of their pet issues, in fact. But, as Obama and Clinton showed back in 2008, sometimes senators don't just decline to lead, sometimes they actively scurry away from the opportunity.
We currently have a bumper crop of senators running for president. Today there was a new addition to the ranks of Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Bernie Sanders, as Lindsey Graham officially announced his candidacy. Who knows what chance any of these senators has of actually winning, but my humble guess is that their chances will improve the more they follow Rand Paul's example of using the bully pulpit of the Senate to fight for what they believe in. They can make good on their big campaign promises ("I'm going to fight hard for you" is a stock line for just about any candidate), and they can do so in real time (instead of just "I'll fight hard if-and-when I make it to the White House").
Which is why I wrote this article today. I've been calling for politicians running for president to use the power of their current offices to advocate and advance their agendas for years now, and I was particularly impressed to see Rand Paul doing so last night. Once again, I'm writing this while dodging any commentary on the issue itself, I realize. But on a purely tactical level of political analysis, I have to vigorously applaud Rand Paul for taking a stand, and I heartily encourage more candidates from both sides of the aisle to do the same thing. Because it marks the difference between merely talking about leadership (in some nebulous campaign rhetoric during a speech to supporters) and actually attempting to lead. And that's a pretty clear distinction, at least for me.
Chris Weigant blogs at:
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant
Become a fan of Chris on The Huffington Post