Rand Paul has managed to pull a Willie Nelson. In songwriter Bruce Robison's playfully deifying telling, Nelson moved to Austin from Nashville in the 1970s and, "like a miracle," gave "all the rednecks and hippies from New York City down to Mississippi" something to cheer about, side by side. The list of senators who stepped onto the Senate floor to help the Kentucky Republican keep up his nearly 13-hour, old-timey talking filibuster about President Obama's drone policy didn't include senators from New York or Mississippi, but it did encompass Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) among a supporting cast of Tea Party and establishment Republicans. The groups of people cheering him on outside the Senate defied the idea of an America polarized along strict partisan lines.
The filibuster is working for Paul for a number of reasons. First, there's the novelty and drama of pulling a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style feat — and, from all reports, doing it quite coherently. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) got some similarly glowing press for his eight-and-a-half hour Senate talkathon in 2010. Paul one-upped him, though. Through some combination of design, stamina, and serendipity, Paul has become the toast of Twitter and the big story in Washington.
In truth, Paul had to resort to a talking filibuster because the other kind — simply requiring 60 votes to move a bill or nomination, as Senate Republicans had just done with Obama judicial nominee Caitlin Halligan — probably wouldn't have worked in this case; CIA director–designate John Brennan, the proximate target of Paul's filibuster, almost certainly had the necessary support to overcome that threshold. But the political stars were aligned for Paul. "Within hours, reporters who rarely covered drone policy were live-tweeting Paul quotes," says David Weigel at Slate. "The National Republican Senatorial Committee launched a #StandWithRand fundraiser for senators who 'remained committed to upholding the values and the mandates of the Constitution.'"
Politically, Paul's unpredictability and ability to grab attention with "an unorthodox move" like this should also make his potential 2016 presidential rivals very nervous, says Sean Sullivan at The Washington Post. At least one of them, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), joined in the filibuster effort. If Paul keeps this up, he'll be "a pretty dangerous candidate" to run against.
But there's more to it than that. Quick, without looking: Can you remember what Sanders was filibustering in 2010? Unlike the Vermonter's lost cause (opposing an Obama tax deal with Republicans), Paul hit on a hot, substantive topic that creates interesting and unusual political bedfellows — and he kept his filibuster focused on that topic instead of reading the phonebook or recipes. The nomination of Brennan, a chief architect of Obama's drone policy, was the premise of the filibuster, but Paul's larger issue is with a letter he received from Attorney General Eric Holder in which the chief U.S. law enforcement officer said that, in very extreme cases, it was theoretically possible that Obama would order a lethal drone strike on an American terrorist suspect.
Paul's wariness at that response resonates with a wide group of people: The same coalition of "constitutional conservatives," libertarians, and college Republicans that were attracted to the presidential campaigns of Paul's father, retired Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). But he also drew plaudits from hawkish Republicans, ACLU liberals, Code Pink anti-war activists, and other people who never embraced the elder Paul. The idea of death-by-drone is more immediate and existential than whether we should re-adopt the gold standard.
Best of all for Paul, you don't even have to agree with the specific points he was making — essentially, that once you allow U.S. drone strikes under "extraordinary circumstances," it's a slippery slope to Arab-Americans being obliterated without warning "in a cafeteria in Dearborn, Mich.," or dropping "a Hellfire missile on Jane Fonda." In fact, most of the senators who aided Paul's filibuster surely don't agree with his every point. (A fairly reliable GOP barometer, The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, applauded Paul's "theatrical timing," but urged him to "calm down," sided with Holder and Obama on the legal merits, and said that if "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.")
The issues of when to use remote-control warfare, what boundaries we should have for fighting terrorism and domestic surveillance, when the government can use lethal force against American citizens, and what constitutes due process are complicated and filled with ample grey areas. But Paul can look like at least a minor hero to so many people because of the one big idea uniting the motley #StandWithRand crew: We should really be having this conversation in the U.S., now, publicly, before (probably non-lethal) drones above our heads become just another part of this American life.