Perhaps the cloture vote on Chuck Hagel was a passing of the guard on the right. Among the 27 senators who stood firm against cloture, doing all they could to keep Hagel out of the Pentagon, were Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) On the other side, making a mockery of prior opposition to Hagel, were John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). The baton has passed, I would suggest, to more principled and savvy hawks who understand that reality (keeping Hagel out of the Pentagon) trumps Senate “comity.”

President Obama Meets With Governors To Discuss Deficit Reduction Sen. Mitch McConnell (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Other notables voting no on cloture were Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). The full list is here. In other words, the Republican “establishment” as well as GOP rebels came together on this issue, making clear that the labels attached to some pols are grossly oversimplified and misleading. Put it this way: If Hagel badly messes up, John McCain will share the blame; Rubio, Fischer and the rest will not.

Let’s also dispense with the notion that the Republicans march in lock step without regard to principle or individual conscience. Was there anything more devoid of principle than the spectacle of every Democratic senator agreeing with the Iranian regime and Louis Farrakhan that Hagel would be a fine choice for secretary of defense? This is one of those times when party loyalty trumped everything.

As for Republicans, there are many other votes in which there is no good alternative (e.g. the fiscal cliff). But here, continued filibuster and a different secretary of defense were available and would have been a vast improvement over the incompetent and dull-witted man who will take over the Pentagon. Other than going along with Democrats, there is no justifiable reason for those who saw Hagel for what he is (inept, extreme, inexperienced, etc.) to have voted for cloture.

So when the GOP looks for leadership on national security, not for puffery and speeches, but for real action, it should look to the “no” column on this vote. (I’m not going to agree with Rand Paul on a lot of national security issues, I suspect, but he was there for the decisive vote before the recess and there again today. He earned himself some credibility and dealt a blow to those who would write him off merely because of his father’s record.) These are the principled leaders, like Cruz and Rubio, who actually put national security first. They also have standing with deficit hawks to navigate the sequester and budget-cutting process so as to minimize the damage to national security.

In short, conservatives learned who the summer soldiers and sunshine patriots were on this one. They shouldn’t forget.