Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) surely didn’t satisfy everyone in the GOP this week. There were nitpicks about his arguments voiced during nearly 13 hours (!) of filibustering, and those who have decided to dislike him, so he can do no right. There were those who seemed not to understand this was about domestic drone use, and, more important, about knocking an imperial president down to size. There were those who suspect he’s up to no good, so strained to douse him with cold water now, before his star brightens any further.
This is the brand of politics that has gotten the GOP in trouble — all or nothing; no temporary alliances, only perpetual grievances; and the failure to see the forest for the trees. These voices missed the important lessons of the week not only in the filibuster but also in the CPAC blow-up and even at the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee policy conference.
The meta-message for the week for Republicans is fourfold.
First, it matters what you do, not what you say. Anyone, I suppose, (or any Democrat, at least) can vote for Chuck Hagel (or relent in a filibuster) and then troop over to AIPAC, pledging to convey a fierce message to the mullahs. But it doesn’t make you a first-string player or someone worthy of admiration. If you have a position you’d better be consistent and effective — otherwise you’ll face challenges from the right (rhetorically and electorally). Blind political loyalty is a thing of the past; it is the era of “What have you done for me lately?”
Second, Republicans have to make allies where they can and look for moments to cut through partisan divisions. If you won’t support a Rand Paul filibuster because you don’t like how he thinks or votes on other matters, you’re not going to be very successful in finding allies. Likewise, in looking for Mr. or Ms. Right at the ballot box it is a mistake to find a mediocre pol who can check the box on a list of positions rather than the skilled pol who is with you more often than not. Find the gal or guy with great political skills, good conservative instincts and character and then chill. If he or she doesn’t agree with you on your seventh-most important issue, live with it.
Third, the days of going on “Meet the Press” or putting out self-congratulatory press releases to make your case are long over. To break through the clutter and get around the mainstream media attack machine, conservatives have to be bold (take over a conference!) and ready to take measured risks (ignore the polls on sequestration and stick to your guns). And when the right makes a forceful case on the facts even with the president and the media in full hysterics (e.g. on the filibuster), skilled pols can sell their case to the voters.
You make or create media moments if you are a real political force. And if you don’t understand 21st-century sensibilities and cultural trends, get out of the way ( yeah, we’re talking to you, CPAC). Moreover, you must do so in ways that don’t appear to be attacking governance per se or giving the voters no good options. That means making the case against the most extreme aspects of the other side’s position and not threatening to disrupt the government (at least not beyond the Senate for about 13 hours).
And finally, these are very trying times on national security. The public is war-weary and understandably skeptical of the Arab Spring’s results. There has to be room for some restraint and skepticism, for a clear delineation between what is essential (stopping Iran from getting the bomb) and what is, at best, a work in progress. And there have to be more articulate spokespeople to explain the stakes to voters and to reassure them that civil liberties are not unimportant. The arguments from 2003 don’t work, and the tone of unbridled optimism in post-Arab Spring regimes is misplaced. Unless hawks refine their message and improve their pitch they will lose the arguments, even on the right.
The good news is the GOP has talent. Now the question is how to channel it, cultivate it and prevent the old guard and the all-or-nothing set from sabotaging the party’s best prospects for the future.