The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Filibuster. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Sometimes, presentation is everything. You can’t call a spade a spade if you want to sell the general public on the spade. If you got a menu that said, “Six despondent-looking shrimp with a squirt of something green next to them” instead of “shellfish a la petite soiree,” you might look upon them differently. “Murky blob of something brown next to equally murky blob of something orange” to “pheasant reduction with parsnip garnish.” A force-fed goose’s swollen liver? No, thank you. Foie gras? Absolutely.

The wrong description can sour you on something just as surely as the right copy can sell you on it. I once heard Miss Piggy describe oysters as “something slimy served in an ashtray” and they’ve never tasted quite the same since.

Precision of language matters — if I asked “Do you think it would be a good idea for this mall to hire an elderly man to urge children with whom he is not personally acquainted to climb into his lap and whisper secrets to him?” you would say “Absolutely not! What kind of weirdo are you?” but if I asked “Should we hire a mall Santa this year?” you would be on board and might even chip in for an elf. Contrast “KFC, anyone?” with “Who wants to eat a dead bird?” Spin is what makes the world go ’round.

Which brings me to the question of the filibuster.

Filibustering is a long and noble American tradition. You get to stand up for your beliefs in comfortable shoes, throwing yourself into the gears of procedure when all other vote-stalling measures have failed.

When you call it a filibuster it is a Noble, Newsworthy Thing Like What Mr. Smith Did When He Went To Washington, and everyone is supposed to gather around the TV and cheer. Except Harry Reid, of course.

But a filibuster by any other name is just a Long, Self-Indulgent Speech. And until it actually starts holding up Senate business, that is exactly what this is.

As I speak (er, type), Rand Paul is engaging in what he is hoping will be perceived as a filibuster, again on his favorite subject — the National Security Agency. (After one actual filibuster, he now seems to be joining Ted Cruz in deciding that the optimal strategy for current senators contending for the highest office in the land is to grab the microphone for as long as possible and speak until they are red or blue in the face in the hopes that people will mistake what they are doing for filibusters.) But this isn’t what Jimmy Stewart did. It’s not holding up a vote. Put it another way, it doesn’t count as a boycott if you refuse to eat in a restaurant during the hours when it isn’t open. It’s nice that Cruz and Paul have such strong feelings and want to share them at such length, but they need to use another word for these speeches — “pointless harangues,” maybe? “Transparent publicity grabs?” “Rambles?” (I know those don’t have quite the heroic ring that filibuster does, but it’s important to be precise.)

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) took to the floor Wednesday afternoon to "filibuster" the renewal of the Patriot Act. Paul claims it gives government too much access to citizens’ private cell phone records. (Video: C-SPAN)

Look, this is not a filibuster yet. It is nice, I suppose, for what it is. But we need another word for what is going on. Right now, it is just Rand Paul talking at length about a subject that interests him. He can talk straight through until 1 p.m. tomorrow and it still won’t be a filibuster. It will just be a speech that does not cause the Senate to function any worse than usual. (Granted, this is not hard.) Until he actually starts holding up Senate business, this is just a — fauxlibuster? Bit of Rand-standing? Whatever it is, a filibuster it ain’t, and we need to stop calling it one.