Why the Rand Paul filibuster might not be such good news for the GOP

March 7, 2013

Republicans in Washington are rejoicing this morning in the wake of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's 13-hour filibuster over CIA nominee John Brennan.


Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

And, as we wrote this morning, it's hard to argue that the filibuster wasn't a major win for Paul -- particularly in light of his not-so-closely-held 2016 aspirations. But, there's an argument to be made -- and we give credit to WaPo's Paul Kane for bringing this to our attention -- that what happened in the Senate last night wasn't a good moment for the broader Republican party.  (Some GOP Senators clearly agree; Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain took to the Senate floor Thursday morning to defend the Obama Administration's stance on drones.)

Here's why -- in four steps.

1. Obama is now the tough-on-terror guy. Yes, Paul's filibuster was narrowly focused on criticizing the Administration's stance (or lack thereof) on the constitutionality of using a drone strike to kill a U.S. citizen on American soil.  But, that nuance will be lost on all but the closest watchers of what happened Wednesday. The takeaway for most people will be that Paul -- and lots of his Republican colleagues -- were standing in opposition to drone strikes, which are remarkably popular with the American public.  By default then Obama becomes the politician willing to do whatever it takes to bring suspected terrorists to justice -- a remarkable shift in how the two parties are perceived on the issue since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2011.

2. Republicans are (still) afraid of the primary electorate.  Paul started out on a limb of his own making -- with no one but tea party-aligned Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Ted Cruz (Texas) to support him.  But, as it became clear that Paul's filibuster was gaining momentum -- particularly among GOP activists on Twitter -- there was a mad dash to the Senate floor by members with an eye on either their own re-election prospects or the 2016 presidential race. Texas Sen. John Cornyn was there, protecting his right flank from the same sort of tea party challenge that installed Cruz in the Senate. Oft-mentioned 2016ers Marco Rubio (Fla.) and John Thune (S.D.) were there, ensuring that the party base knew that there was no distance between them and Paul. Simply put: If you needed a reminder about the power (or perceived power) of the  tea party base of the GOP, the Paul filibuster was it.

3. It's the economy, stupid. Ask the average American what issue he/she cares most about and two-thirds will say the economy.  If one percent say drones, we would be -- somewhat -- surprised. It's simply not an issue that galvanizes large numbers of the American public and, as we noted above, to the extent people pay any attention to drones, they are supportive of using them.  So, while President Obama was making nice -- or at least sharing a meal -- with 11 Republican Senators and reaching out to Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to talk about the economy, the GOP was talking about drones.  And, in case you forgot, the party still lacks a big-picture vision on the way forward regarding the country's debt and spending issues that goes beyond simply saying: "No new taxes".

4.  D.C. process = not good.  People loathe Washington at the moment. Staging a filibuster is one of the most "Washington" things either party can possible do -- does one percent of the country even know what "cloture" is? -- and for anyone paying passing attention to what happened they will almost certainly write it off as "Washington being Washington".  Stories about process -- and the filibuster is process to the nth degree -- are rarely a good thing for a political party looking to rebrand itself and to emphasize that it is more than just a lot of talk emanating from Washington.

To be clear, plenty of smart Republican strategists believe that the filibuster was good for Rand Paul AND for the GOP more broadly.

They insist that the filibuster is a bit of process that people actually understand and that for Republicans to be standing against drone strikes against Americans in the United States is a principled position easily defensible to the general public.

"This is a common-sense stand that makes sense to people -- U.S. drones should not target Americans on U.S. soil," said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster who did Paul's survey work for the 2010 general election campaign. As to the critique that his party might be taking its eye off the economy ball, Newhouse retorted: "Our party can handle more than one issue at a time."

According to a senior GOP campaign operative, even assessing what the public might think of the filibuster is missing the point. "This is a 24-hour flash in pan that will quickly be forgotten by the general public but that our base will remember for awhile as meaningful action," said the source. "Considering we have a hard time satisfying their rightward appetite this seemed like a 'win win': [the] base is happy and rest of country will quickly forget."

So, where do you come down? Is the Paul filibuster a win-win for the GOP?  Or a good thing for him and a much-less-good thing for his party? The comments section awaits.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan | March 7, 2013