< The Legacy of a Filibuster


Friday, March 29, 2013

BOB GARFIELD:  On the subject of public opinion, in early March Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, with a little help from a few fellow senators, pulled off a good old-fashioned 13-hour-long filibuster.

SENATOR RAND PAUL:  I will speak as long as it takes until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast, that no Americans should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime.

BOB GARFIELD:  There was some comic relief, such as when Marco Rubio pitched in with some hip-hop lyrics, while giving his colleague a break.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO:  That takes me back to another modern-day poet by the name of Jay-Z and one of the songs he wrote: “It's funny what seven days can change. It was all good just a week ago.”


BOB GARFIELD:  But Paul was serious, hammering away on America’s use of drones. Specifically, he was pressuring the White House to answer a simple question:  Would the United States use a drone to kill a US citizen on US soil? The White House finally replied to Paul’s hypothetical with a simple, “No.” But not only did his feat of endurance yield an answer, it actually may have changed minds about using drones to kill American terrorism suspects in other countries, which we have done at least once.

This week a Gallup poll found that fewer than half of those surveyed approved of using airstrikes to kill US citizens living abroad or suspected of terrorism. Slate’s Dave Weigel, pondering the impact of the filibuster, said the Washington Post asked basically the same question a year ago and got a very different answer.

DAVID WEIGEL:  Sixty-five percent of people were fine with the idea of using a drone to take out a US citizen who is now a terrorist in some other country. In this Gallup poll that came out last week, from 65 percent support we went to 41 percent. There used to be only 26 percent against it. That had risen to 52 percent. That's a 50-point swing against it.

BOB GARFIELD:  The idea that Paul continued to hit on was the notion of using drones to strike Americans on US soil. Where does that even come from?

DAVID WEIGEL:  It's something that I think just immediately conjures the worst vision of what government could do, and Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic suggested almost a year ago that drones might become the new black helicopters. In the 1990s, government paranoia was associated with the fear that there were mysterious black helicopters appearing at opportune times for the government. Drones started taking that role in ideological media, on Alex Jones’ show online. Paul, in this filibuster, used a fairly slow news day to compel people to cover the issue in the way he defined it.

BOB GARFIELD:  It's hard for me to imagine the mechanism for this pretty astonishing flip-flop in public opinion, because at the time there wasn’t that much coverage of the issue itself. The coverage of Paul's filibuster was very much procedural. To what do you attribute the turnaround?

DAVID WEIGEL:  Well, it was a slow-boiling thing, and once other Republicans came in to alleviate Paul’s burden and do colloquies, that’s when it became a partisan story. The press knows better how to process a partisan story than either a technological story or an ideological story. And I think for that reason you saw this bursting floodgate open.

BOB GARFIELD:  One thing about the drone program is that it's kind of an equal opportunity paranoia opportunity because the left has been spied on domestically a great deal, and the Tea Party is often talking about government overreach. Do you think that Rand Paul's filibuster struck a chord across the political spectrum?

DAVID WEIGEL:  It actually did. Paul as a politician has a real eye for this. Paul ends up either cosponsoring legislation with a fellow iconoclast or kind of striking out on his own without legislation, just saying what the party should do to survive. And a couple of times this month he managed to cross what we see as partisan lines, by saying things that liberals enjoyed on immigration, on drones. He’s done this before with foreign policy and aide.

BOB GARFIELD:  All right, so he put all of his chips on 00 [double zero] and it hit. And now it appears that Senator Paul is considering taking the big stack and once again putting it on 00 and filibustering the gun control legislation in the Senate. Do you think he’s pushing his luck?

DAVID WEIGEL:  He – Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, senators from Texas and Utah, respectively - have threatened to filibuster on guns. It could work some of the same way, but it's not an issue that surprises the press. Hearing a Republican say that they’re stalwarts on guns is not new. I don't know how many times they can play the same trick on something that's already identified as a ideological conservative or as a partisan Republican issue.

BOB GARFIELD:  You’ve mentioned Rand Paul and his colleagues, Republican colleagues in the Senate, Ted Cruz from Texas and Mike Lee from Utah. These three guys to me are extremists, and the less attention paid to them, the better. But what happened with this filibuster would seem to argue against my desires. Do you think we should pay less attention to Rand Paul and these other guys or more?

DAVID WEIGEL:  This is a real question for media, I think, because there is a temptation to cover people who hold the most press conferences and who make the most bold stands. It’s often disconnected to the legislation that actually is going to pass.

BOB GARFIELD:  Well then, back to drones. Given the pretty significant [LAUGHS] shift in public opinion, will this lead to legislation?

DAVID WEIGEL:  There weren’t actually moves from Republicans. After the filibuster, John Boehner was asked if House Republicans, who have a lot of ability to investigate, if they would do so. And he kind of referred everyone in the press to Mike Rogers, the intelligence chairman in the House to truncate what he said, basically drones are fine, don’t worry. Ted Cruz tried to introduce an amendment to the budget that just passed that would prevent any drones from being used on citizens on American soil, and that didn't pass. You haven’t seen anything move on that front. How do we get to that point? I, I'm not sure but for all of the criticism and eye rolling he draws, Rand Paul probably got us closer to that point.

BOB GARFIELD:  All right, Dave, thank you very much.

DAVID WEIGEL:  Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD:  Dave Weigel covers politics for Slate.


David Weigel

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