In the wake of Senator Rand Paul’s much talked about 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination for CIA director, it is interesting to look at how politicians have reacted to what he had to say. The central thrust of Paul’s objection was the lack of clarity surrounding Attorney General Eric Holder’s comments that the U.S. government would be within its rights to use drones against Americans on American soil. Paul’s efforts have been met with overwhelmingly positive support from the American public across the political spectrum, including from activist groups such as CODEPINK. The reaction from politicians, however, has been mixed, with Democrats remaining largely silent on the issue and some fellow Republicans even attacking Paul.
The contrasting reactions have to an extent cut across partisan lines, but they appear to have more to do with who is saying what, rather than substantive, principled objections to, or support for, the use of drone strikes.
Following his filibuster, during which he was supported by a number of fellow Republicans including senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Paul also came in for some harsh criticism from within his own party. Alex Pareene of Salon reported the story with the would-be-more-hilarious-if-it-wasn’t-so-sad sub heading: "Senate's hawkiest hawks so outraged that a fellow Republican was mean to drones that they now support Brennan." Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham both attacked Paul for his comments, with McCain arguing that they constituted "a disservice to a lot of Americans" and that the filibuster had presented a "distortion of the realities of the threats we face. It is not a mature discussion." He then went on to label Paul as one of "the wacko birds on right and left that get the media megaphone."
Graham followed suit, accusing Paul and those who supported him of hypocrisy: "To my Republican colleagues, I don’t remember any of you coming down here suggesting that President Bush was going to kill anybody with a drone, do you? They had a drone program back then, all of a sudden this drone program has gotten every Republican so spun up." At one point Graham even put up a sign on the Senate floor saying that while al-Qaeda has killed 2958 people in the U.S., drones have killed none.
As McCain’s comments show, Paul clearly isn’t his favourite Republican. He and Graham appear to resent the Tea Party-backed Paul personally for speaking out against drone strikes and the war-like mentality that seems to pervade the U.S. political establishment. While their attacks do stem in part from their own support for Obama’s drone program, more than anything else they comes across as the petty snipes of older, establishment Republicans who probably resent the growing influence and profile of the younger generation of Republicans such as Paul. The ridiculousness of the antics of McCain and Graham is highlighted by the fact that they both ended up voting for Brennan in order to show their support for the drone program, despite having previously said they would vote against him in order to send a signal that they were unhappy with the Obama administration’s answers on the Benghazi embassy attack. So essentially, they got annoyed at Paul’s filibuster and decided to change their votes.
As for the Democrats, other than Senator Ron Wyden, who supported Paul’s filibuster, there has been a deafening silence on the issue of drone strikes. This embarrassing silence from the Democratic Party translates into acquiescence to the Administration’s use of drones for extrajudicial killings. The irony is that it is hard to imagine Democrats not being incensed at the same thing had it been a Republican in power. Their current stance, or lack of one, highlights what David Sirota labels "one of the most insidious trends in American progressive politics: the trend toward seeing anything and everything as a purely partisan endeavor, regardless of possible outcomes." Sirota argues that if liberals support the principles Paul was defending, then they should be supporting him, even if they disagree with everything else he has to say. And yet clearly Democrats are staying silent not because of a principled disagreement with Paul on this matter but for partisan reasons.
The differing reactions to Paul’s filibuster, both criticism from within his own party and silence from Democrats, are thus sadly less representative of principled stances on the use of drones and more resentment of the messenger himself and which side of the aisle he sits on.