A heartening rise in support of liberty is rippling throughout the GOP
Fans of liberty may have been disappointed with the results of November’s election, as the primary exponent of liberty, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, got walloped at the polls. For libertarians constantly disappointed at the creeping expansion of the government facilitated by both parties, this past week served as a consolation prize. First, a major party’s senator publicly championed civil liberties for the entire country to see. Subsequently, the senator’s act was heavily lauded—prime indication of a new groundswell of support for personal freedom.
Just a week ago, the concept of liberty seemed to be receding in the public eye. President Obama’s nomination for Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John O. Brennan, was set to earn confirmation with overwhelming support, despite questions arising from his role as architect of the administration’s drone policy. While the initialization of the sequester signaled the type of reduced spending libertarians yearn for, pretty much everyone in the country would have preferred the government actually working out policy and governing in real time. Questions about the drone policy were repeatedly stonewalled, with little outlook of any progress in clarifying the rights American citizens maintain in the eyes of their government.
When Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky took the stand to declare his filibuster against Brennan, few believed it would have an impact on administration policy. Old-time GOP hawks like John McCain called Senator Paul and his liberty-minded allies “wacko birds,” swiftly dismissing the important role leaders must play in protecting their citizens from the tyranny of the majority. Conventional wisdom stated that the GOP, which is strongly influenced by neoconservative power players, would never endorse what detractors deem “isolationism” and “weak-willed foreign policy.”
In this case, conventional wisdom was proven wrong. Only starry-eyed idealists could have believed that a sole senator could actually wrestle any real information out of an administration so reluctant to show its hand to the American people. Yet by the time Paul’s 13-hour long marathon was over, he was no longer a lone crusader. Over time, he was joined first by his allies, like Senator Ted Cruz, and then by the greater Republican Party. At the end of the day, one of the most vocal advocates for Paul’s position was Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
If nothing else, Senator Paul’s effort made an impact on the Republican Party and on the direction in which its political positions are heading. It is clear that the party’s average supporter no longer endorses the outmoded neoconservative viewpoints manifest in Senators McCain and Graham, who both virulently decried Paul’s exercise shortly after its completion. While many libertarians may find it ironic that the next guarantors of civil liberties are to be found in the party of George W. Bush, it is increasingly evident that the Obama presidency has cut the vocal chords of its previous advocates. Ten years ago, common wisdom would have pilloried a pundit who said that the Democratic Party would have no qualms with the executive branch cultivating a “kill list” with exactly zero oversight.
Of course, only a pessimist can say that the only ramification of Paul’s opposite exists within the GOP ranks. Senator Paul did, in fact, receive a clarifying answer from Attorney General Eric Holder the day after his harangue, assuring Paul and the American public that President Obama does not have the authority to target a Hellfire missile at Jane Fonda while she tranquilly sips a latte in a café. Realists recognize that Holder only claimed that the president could not attack American citizens “not engaged in combat.” Such verbiage is potentially worrisome when placed in the context of the administration’s recent redefinition and expansion of the term “enemy combatant.” Basically, as long as Obama and his advisers think that you do or could eventually pose a threat to the nation, you are engaged in combat with the nation.
While the cause of freedom may not yet be completely restored, Rand Paul certainly brought the issue to the public consciousness. We have not heard the last inquiries into the administration’s drone policy, and hopefully we have not heard the final clarifications by the attorney general on its behalf. The filibuster proved that protecting civil liberties is a winning issue, especially for the Republican Party. The cynic will say that Republicans only support reigning in executive power insofar as it vitiates Obama’s authority. The pragmatist will say that it hardly matters. It is perhaps too much to expect the self-interested American politician to embrace the notion of libertas gratia libertatis. But I’ll take libertas gratia civilitatis any day. In this case, the means justify the ends—as long as liberty is protected, the American people are in a better place.
John F. M. Kocsis ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.