Earlier today, I noted that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) were on opposite sides of a generational divide in the GOP that goes beyond ideology. That flared into an open spat as McCain, along with his closest amigo, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), openly slammed Paul, calling him “uninformed.” Graham pronounced that Paul didn’t deserve an answer. McCain hissed: “The country needs more senators who care about liberty, but if Mr. Paul wants to be taken seriously, he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms. He needs to know what he’s talking about.” That peevish retort may have reflected McCain’s sense that he had been badly upstaged. Or maybe he hadn’t followed the debate.
Then, with near-perfect timing, Paul got his response in a two-sentence letter from Attorney General Eric Holder. The first sentence was dishonest: “It has come to my attention you have now asked an additional question: ‘Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?’” In fact, that was Paul’s question all along. But Holder then admitted, no, the U.S. government doesn’t have the authority to target U.S. citizens at home who are not involved in hostilities.
Rand Paul got to crow in a series of interviews. He had pried an answer out of a White House habitually averse to treating a co-equal branch with respect. He certainly got more done than Graham and McCain did last night by attending a Georgetown dinner with the president, a White House move no doubt intended to reverse the president’s slide in the polls and make it seem like he was reaching out to Republicans. Had McCain and Graham done as much in the past as Paul did in his nearly 13-hour filibuster, we might have had a full accounting on, say, Benghazi from President Obama.
The lesson from the Paul episode for right and for left, and especially for the media, is that it pays to challenge the president to live up to his billing as the “most transparent administration in history.” It’s not a good thing to passively accept outrageous assertions of executive power.
It is a lesson for Republicans that cordial, forceful assertion of principle gets you attention and praise. As for McCain and Graham, they’ve never looked so old school and out to lunch as they did today. If the hawkish right is looking for new, effective leadership, Rand Paul is not going to be their man, but McCain and Graham aren’t the future, either.
Looking at those on the Senate floor last night and/or those who praised the effort, there are many rising stars that can be effective checks against Obama while making a reasoned case for American leadership in the world. Just as it is time for fresh ideas domestically and a more skilled political operation on the right, there is room for rising stars and a more sophisticated approach to the post-Arab Spring world. Who will take that spot? Who will help navigate the right through the remainder of Obama’s tenure as commander in chief? We’ll find out soon enough.