In choice of both topic and foil, Rand Paul’s now legendary Senate filibuster was a stroke of political genius.
The topic was, ostensibly, very narrow: Does the president have the constitutional authority to put a drone-launched Hellfire missile through your kitchen — you, a good citizen of Topeka to whom POTUS might have taken a dislike — while you’re cooking up a pot roast?
The constituency of those who could not give this question a straight answer is exceedingly small. Unfortunately, among them is Attorney General Eric Holder.
Enter the foil. He told a Senate hearing that such an execution would not be “appropriate.” Appropriate being a bureaucratic word meaning nothing, Holder’s answer was a PR disaster. The correct response, of course, is: Absent an active civil war on U.S. soil (of the kind not seen in 150 years) or a jihadist invasion from Saskatchewan led by the Topeka pot roaster, the answer is no.
The hypothetical being inconceivable, Paul’s performance was both theatrically brilliant and substantively irrelevant. As for the principle at stake, Holder’s opinion carries no weight in any case. He is hardly a great attorney general whose words will ring through history. Nor would anything any attorney general says be binding on the next president, or for that matter on any Congress or court.
The vexing and pressing issue is the use of drones abroad. The filibuster pretended not to be about that. Which is testimony to Paul’s political adroitness. It was not until two days later that he showed his hand, writing in the Washington Post, “No American should be killed by a drone without first being charged with a crime.”
Note the absence of the restrictive clause: “on American soil.” Now we’re talking about a larger, more controversial issue: the killing by drone in Yemen of al-Qaida operative Anwar al-Awlaki. Outside American soil, the Constitution does not rule, no matter how much Paul would like it to.