Ending a contrived and sadly symptomatic bit of political stagecraft last week, Sen. Rand Paul finally managed to state clearly his question and thus elicited the answer he seemed to want from the Obama administration: No, the president of the United States does not have the authority to order drone strikes in the U.S. on American noncombatants.
While the exchange was a constitutional and moral no-brainer for most people, the Kentucky Republican abused the Senate filibuster rule over two days and managed to construct a rhetorical maze that he could escape only by making himself look, as Sen. John McCain generously put it, “ridiculous.” It would have been merely amusing if it had not been so counterproductive.
After almost 13 hours of nonstop filibuster, and apparently refreshed by a restroom break and some brain food, Paul had refined his question to the point that Attorney General Eric Holder could answer it with a two-sentence letter (three, actually, if you count “Sincerely” as one of them).
But by the time that happened, Paul had cast into our dangerously toxic political atmosphere these ideas:
• The president might send a drone to blast a San Francisco restaurant because someone there was exchanging e-mails with a relative in the Middle East.
• The mindless question: “Does the president realize he is constrained by the Constitution?”
• A paranoiac declaration that the possibility of the existence of different standards for targeting combatants in the U.S. and overseas “alarms us because it means he’s already thinking of standards for killing Americans in the U.S.”
• If she were still politically active, “Are you going to just drop … a Hellfire missile on Jane Fonda?”
In concocting the pure nonsense, Paul obviously did not think things through.
For one, a president inclined to ignore the Constitution and kill Americans at will would have no problem at all lying about his intentions and could easily accomplish it without the drama of a drone. For another, any president – and for that matter any powerful person or organization such as, say, Bank of America or the New York Yankees – could arrange to whack just about anyone. But of course they won’t, so do we really need to ask them?
After receiving Holder’s letter, Paul claimed a major victory for constitutional rights that he thought justified the kerfuffle because “we get an admission (sic!) that they will follow the Constitution.” Which, of course, is what the presidential oath of office is about.
All this would constitute a vaguely amusing if bewildering tale in a normal political environment, but Paul’s irresponsibility accomplished only two things: the trivialization of a serious debate the country needs to have about presidentially targeted killings anywhere, and the addition of a set of sensational and misleading sound bites to feed the paranoia already infecting a dangerously large and dark fringe of American politics.
If there’s an upside to Paul’s misadventure, it may be that America’s crucial and endangered two-party system could benefit. He handed responsible Republican leaders struggling to regain control of their party yet another example to cite of the destructiveness of inflammatory rhetoric and relentless partisanship. So long as either of the major parties is so divided that its leadership cannot exercise reasonable discipline on its officeholders, the democratic system will remain gridlocked.