WASHINGTON — Since arriving in the Senate in 2011, Rand Paul has been probing here and there for issues of populist resonance. Audit the secretive, sinister Federal Reserve. Rein in those TSA screeners patting down little girls. In each instance Paul has evoked the fear of oppressive government, without tipping over into the paranoia of his father's most dedicated supporters. It has been a diluted, domesticated, decaffeinated version of the ideology that motivated Ron Paul's presidential races.
On drones, Rand Paul finally hit pay dirt. Thanks to his filibuster, Americans can now feel safe that if they are “typing emails in a cafe,” they will not be “summarily executed” by a Hellfire missile. This has admittedly not been a large problem since 9/11. Paul is careful to point out that he is concerned about the possible abuses of some future, Hitler-like president.
Seeking an unobjectionable assurance, Paul was aided by a bungling administration, at first incapable of effectively articulating its own policy. The Justice Department memo on drone strikes leaked last month said that a target must present an imminent threat of violence; capture must not be feasible; and the operation must comply with the rules of war. Offing a noncombatant at a Starbucks in Pittsburgh is not an option. But it took some time for the attorney general to say this plainly.
In the interval, Paul gathered the sudden, unexpected, Internet-driven momentum of a varied coalition. There were, of course, paleoconservatives who believe a tyrannical dystopia has already arrived.
But this group was joined by partisan Republicans who enjoyed watching the Obama administration squirm and yield. And by some, on the left and right, who believe the drone program has inadequate oversight, or that American security policy is over-reliant on targeted killings, or that the whole enterprise is ethically suspect.
It was Paul's political genius to pick a ripe populist issue and drive home one narrow, uncontestable point. But in the course of a 13-hour filibuster, it becomes impossible to hide your deeper motivations. Paul employs the prospect of drone murders in an attempt to discredit the “perpetual war” in which “the whole world is a zone of war.” His actual target is the war on terrorism, which he regards as unconstitutional and counterproductive.