The Passion of Rand Paul
Why the senator was against Chuck Hagel before he was for him.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., at the Capitol in February
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Shortly before noon, before the vote on whether to move forward on Chuck Hagel’s nomination for secretary of defense, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul walked onto the floor of the Senate. He stood near the well, where he would have to cast his vote. After Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander cast the first vote—an aye—he and Paul chatted off to the side. When his own name came up in the roll call—“Mr. Paul?”—Paul said nothing.
Nearly half of Paul’s fellow senators voted in the first alphabetical run-through of names. It was clear, almost immediately, that Hagel would have enough votes to break a filibuster. Paul walked over to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the unofficial whip of the unofficial Dump Hagel campaign, spoke briefly, then returned to the well. He cast his vote.
“Mr. Paul, no.”
Hagel was vaulting over this final hurdle, but Paul wasn’t going to help. Two weeks earlier, Paul had cast a decisive vote against cloture, making Hagel the first-ever national security nominee to face a filibuster. “There's all kinds of rumors all over the Internet about foreign groups that may have provided financing,” explained Paul, “and I think he needs to reveal that.” Had Paul voted the other way, Hagel wouldn’t have spent those extra days being beat up by hawkish Republicans, Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, and groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel.
Forty other Republicans joined Paul on that first filibuster, and 26 more joined him in the first vote opposing cloture today. But conservative foreign policy “realists,” the sort of people who backed Rep. Ron Paul’s campaigns for president, were uniquely disappointed in the heir. “Sen. Paul is aiding and abetting a disgusting McCarthyite campaign against an honorable man,” wrote AntiWar.com’s Justin Raimondo. “Paul endorsed one of the worst, least credible anti-Hagel arguments of all,” wrote American Conservative columnist Daniel Larison, “which is essentially the Ted Cruz argument that Hagel needs to ‘prove’ that he is not in league with foreign governments or sympathetic with terrorists.”
Overcoming that kind of guilt-by-association politics was one of the points of the Hagel nomination. Wasn’t it? Rand Paul, too, had challenged the wisdom of the neoconservatives and been battered for it. If Hagel could be confirmed, it would mean you could name and shame the “Israel lobby” (or, okay, the “Jewish lobby”) without being banished to Siberia. If the Senate really debated Hagel’s views, really revisited the wisdom of the Iraq War and whether the 2007 surge worked and whether Iran can’t ever be negotiated with, it would expand the aperture of “serious” foreign policy debate.
Paul was aware of that. To him, delaying Hagel was in keeping with the actual goals of the realists and libertarians. “I wanted to get more information not only on Hagel but more information on [CIA nominee John] Brennan,” he said, after leaving the post-vote Republican luncheon. “That didn’t work because we didn’t stick together on it. Last week’s vote was useless. If you don’t stick together, you won’t have leverage.” And Paul will now turn his attention to the Brennan nomination, to demand and get more answers on the legality of the drone program and whether Americans, on American soil, could be targeted for killing. “It’s blatantly illegal—we have probably a dozen laws saying the CIA can’t operate in the United States, and neither can the Department of Defense.”
That wasn’t obvious to libertarians and paleo-conservatives. One year ago, Sen. Paul was criss-crossing key Republican primary and caucus states to whip up support for presidential candidate Ron Paul. I remember cranking the speedometer of a rental car, and parking illegally near the University of Northern Iowa, to see the Pauls work a fire-hazard-crowded ballroom. Ron Paul would go on to win that county. Rand Paul would go on to filibuster Chuck Hagel.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.