Something very strange happened Wednesday night on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
We saw the very best of what Washington can be.
On display was an old-fashioned idea that has grown out of favor: that one man, standing alone on principle can draw attention to an issue that is currently being downplayed by the political establishment, rally people to his side and through little more than endurance and willpower, force positive change.
It began a very lonely venture.
Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky, rose just before noon in opposition to the nomination of John Brennan as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency and didn’t relinquish the floor for roughly 13 hours.
The reason for Paul’s “talking filibuster” (a rare occurrence in Washington) was simple. He asked the president of the United States, the attorney general and John Brennan if their executive authority had limits.
This isn’t black helicopter conspiracy theory talk. Paul’s query was borne of a respect for the Fifth Amendment and the administration’s own flirtations with using executive power to target American citizens that it deems to be national security threats.
Can an American citizen be targeted and killed by the president of the United States on American soil, without due process, if the president simply deems them to be dangerous enough?
Think it is such a far-fetched idea?
What if, to use a familiar example, the FBI found the Unabomber’s Montana cabin and wanted to eliminate him as a threat, given his ongoing terrorism. Sending a drone or missile to take him out would certainly be easier than risking the lives of agents in a raid on his compound.
Could the president dispense summary justice without due process simply because Ted Kaczynski is a detestable human being and we would all rather he be dead?
You would think this should be a simple thing to answer.
As much as we might gain satisfaction from just “getting rid of him,” that is a horrifying power to give anyone. Even if you trust President Barack Obama to not abuse such an authority, can you imagine the authority to silently kill American citizens without due process in the hands of some of our more paranoid, ethically challenged presidents? Richard Nixon, perhaps?
The Paul filibuster sought a simple answer from Brennan and the White House regarding the legality of targeting American citizens on U.S. soil. Yet they both refused to respond and put themselves on record respecting the Fifth Amendment.
For anyone thinking this was a false concern from a paranoid Libertarian, this was the moment when you realized the White House would like this authority and does not want to put itself on the record opposing it.
Paul may have started out a lone figure, but as the day and night wore on he was joined by Republicans and Democrats alike, building real momentum behind his simple question: Why won’t the White House clarify what it believes are the limits to its authority to kill U.S. citizens on U.S. soil without due process?
All through the strangely compelling theater of it all, I was struck by the incredible substance of the entire affair. The entire debate was about the limits of executive power, the due process clause in the Fifth Amendment and the protection of the civil liberties of American citizens.
There was no reading of the phone book or stalling for time with soliloquies from Shakespeare. This was a real conversation and a good one.
This filibuster was special. It rose above ideological ankle-biting and obstructions score-settling. It was interesting. It was sincere. It was educational. There was a palpable sense of honest concern for policy, and engagement from the Democrats that participated was respectful and borderline collaborative.
But perhaps the most important thing about this filibuster was that it represents a turning point in American politics.
Republicans, who for too long had dismissed concerns from civil libertarians regarding the president’s role in the “war on terror,” are now openly questioning centralized executive power and are fighting to protect American citizens from too much of that authority.
And the left, who so often demagogues Republican filibusters, essentially joined Paul in his quest. Leftist critics of Obama’s concentration of executive authority from prominent columnists to Code Pink protesters all weighed in on his side.
For once, a real conversation about the extent of our civil liberties, the application of the Fifth Amendment and the proper role of the executive branch in fighting the war on terror happened.
For once, we saw the best of what Washington can be.