Rand Paul won the presidential straw poll at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), but he appears to have won the debate on drones by an even larger margin.
A poll of CPAC attendees found that 86% opposed the use of drones to “kill US citizens,” while 70% were against using them to “spy on U.S. citizens”. More strikingly, 50% of respondents at America’s largest gathering of conservative activists agreed with the following statement: “Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, it’s time for our European, Asian, and other allies to provide for their own defense.”
Only 34% agreed with this statement: “As the world’s only superpower, the US needs to bear the responsibility of protecting our allies in Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world.” Another 17% didn’t know, weren’t sure or preferred not to say.
The wording of the questions certainly made conservatives more likely to give non-interventionist responses. One simple edit in the drone questions –changing “US citizens” to “terrorists” – might have elicited a somewhat different answer. Nevertheless, the momentum definitely appears to have shifted. Gone are the days of Americans supporting anything in the name of US security.
This latest libertarian surge on the American right began with Kentucky Senator Paul’s 13-hour filibuster over domestic drones. Paul posed a simple question to the Obama administration: Do they believe the president has the legal authority to kill a US citizen on American soil with a drone?
In what originally appeared to be a quixotic crusade, Paul won the support of the top two Senate Republican leaders, many of his GOP colleagues, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and grassroots conservatives all over social media, who began tweeting “#standwithrand“. He also got the Obama administration to cry uncle on the question of domestic drone killings, though some mysteries remain.
For Republicans who had never particularly cared about drones or extrajudicial killings before, the Paul filibuster was great fun. It allowed them to hit liberal hypocrisy on civil liberties, seldom in shortly supply when Democrats are in power. It gave them the opportunity to engage in a messaging war with the White House and actually win. And for the first time in quite a while, the GOP was able to rally the conservative base without irritating anyone else.
Almost anyone, that is. The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol said that Paul was leading the “Code Pink faction of the Republican party.” John McCain groused about “wacko birds” and libertarian kids sitting in their dorm rooms.
In the not-too-distant past, jibes like these might have been devastating. Not this time. Tea Party rising star Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz wore the “wacko birds” sobriquet like a badge of honor. Kristol’s Code Pink-baiting was mostly ignored.
The tough on defense hawks appeared to have the upper hand as recently as the Chuck Hagel confirmation hearings. Now Paul was getting conservative Republicans to question something more fundamental than drone strikes: whether a permanent war without geographic or temporal limits – that is, the neoconservative framing of the war on terror – is really compatible with limited government.
Paul pointed out that if the American homeland is considered part of the battlefield, then the Bill of Rights goes out the window. And if the president can commit troops to whatever country he wants based on the authorization of force most Americans understood as pertaining to Afghanistan, congressional war powers are the next part of the Constitution that must be jettisoned. When put that way, that’s further than many Republicans want to go, especially when there is a democratic president.
Paul isn’t alone. Not only does he have allies in the Senate like Cruz of Texas and Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, another Tea Party darling, but there is now a cadre of libertarian-leaning Republicans in the House of Representatives: Justin Amash (Michigan), Kerry Bentivolio (Michigan), Thomas Massie (Kentucky), Raúl Labrador (Idaho), and Tom McClintock (California) to name a few.
There are now thousands of libertarian activists working within the Republican Party, especially through organizations spawned by Rand Paul’s father, Ron, who ran for president in 1988, 2008 and 2012. Campaign for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty are the largest. The Pauls’ message is even starting to gain traction among members of more established fiscal conservative groups, like FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth.
The “liberty movement” is now a bona fide wing of the Tea Party and an increasingly active part of the GOP. But its supporters are not 100% beholden to the Republicans, either. These voters helped swell 2012 Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s vote totals to a record-breaking 1.2m last November.
Foreign policy and civil liberties may be where these activists have their biggest impact, and Paul has shown the way. The filibuster isn’t the first time he has isolated the neoconservatives from the rest of the party. While many Americans are only learning about Rand Paul for the first time, he has a track record of succeeding against the usual GOP crowd. He managed this feat in his 2010 Senate primary, when Dick Cheney and Rudy Giuliani endorsed his opponent. And again two years later when his ally Thomas Massie won a congressional primary in northern Kentucky.
It’s easy to see how this libertarian moment could be undone: elect a sufficiently hawkish Republican president and much of this sentiment on the right could recede. It’s also possible that this wing of the party tries to rise too fast for its own good. If Justin Amash were to run for Michigan’s open Senate seat next year and lose, followed by Rand Paul pushing forward with a competitive but unsuccessful presidential campaign rather than running for senate reelection in 2016, the movement could be without its two most prominent elected leaders.
For now, that’s a problem libertarian Republicans are happy to have.