Column: Democrats should have stood with Rand
Published: Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 18:03
Last week, I logged onto Twitter and saw a slew of posts that included the hashtag, “#StandWithRand.” Correctly assuming this was about Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who I disagree with on many issues, I prepared myself for the worst. But as I looked into it, I was pleasantly surprised to see he was speaking out not against abortion access or same-sex marriage, but on something we agree about – opposition to President Obama’s overly expansive drone program.
But as I watched the proceedings, one thing began to stick out to me – where were the Democrats? Sen. Paul was speaking on one of the most important civil liberties issues today, and gathering huge amounts of attention in doing so. Throughout the day, Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) gave Paul a few moments to rest by asking questions. Yet the only Democrat to make an appearance was Oregon’s Ron Wyden. Progressive Democrats should oppose civil liberties violations no matter who the president is, and should have stood with Sen. Paul.
Specifically, Paul was filibustering the confirmation of John Brennan as the new head of the CIA, saying he would stop speaking only when the White House stated whether it believed it could assassinate non-combatant US citizens on US soil. To those unfamiliar with the drone program, this question may sound ridiculous. But in 2011, the Obama administration assassinated American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen under suspicion of terrorism. This was the first time the US government had targeted an American citizen abroad, and it’s not unreasonable to wonder if this could eventually expand into killings of suspected terrorists on American soil.
This would bring with it countless problems. How would the government define “terrorism”? Only those actively planning attacks? Or, like al-Awlaki, those who are vocal supporters of organizations like Al Qaeda? Or even those who sympathize with their motivations? Those who question the effectiveness of efforts to combat terrorism? While I don’t suspect President Obama is planning a domestic assassination, leaving this precedent unchecked could allow future presidents to further abuse this power.
Progressive Democrats have long been champions of civil liberties, taking the lead in important debates around religious freedom, protections from illegal searches, and freedom of speech. They’ve spoken out against violating Americans’ privacy in the name of the war on terror. Yet lately, they seem to be a dying breed. There’s a Democrat in the White House, but he is actually quite conservative on important civil liberties issues like domestic spying and the war on drugs. Most other Democrats seem to agree with him, or are at least pretending to in order to move up the party ranks.
Democrats’ silence on this issue is giving Sen. Paul and his fellow Republicans a golden opportunity to falsely recast themselves as the party of civil liberties. While there are some libertarian Republicans who are great on these issues, as evidenced by Sen. McCain’s harsh rebuke of Paul’s filibuster, the party establishment is still on the wrong side of the debate. Republicans have generally been the biggest supporters of harsh drug penalties, long prison sentences, government support of religion, and censorship of objectionable speech. I hope that Rand Paul represents a shift in the party as a whole, but I’m not holding my breath.
Progressives like to define themselves with their strong values and willingness to speak truth to power. Well, now is the time. While President Obama is a progressive on certain issues, when it comes to foreign policy and his drone program, he’s on the far right of the spectrum. Progressives need to call him out now, or risk losing any credibility when they accuse future Republican presidents of civil liberties violations.
More than ever, it’s clear that Sen. Paul is positioning himself to run for the presidency in 2016. His admirable filibuster increased his chances at the nomination, and would almost certainly be a central focus of his campaign. If progressive Democrats don’t stand up and join him now, their candidate will have a lot to explain when he or she is debating Paul on civil liberties.