Like Clockwork

Rand Paul penned an op-ed in The Daily Beast on Monday that lays out his overarching critique of expansive government. For Paul, the most egregious sins of the past two administrations involve the reckless expansion of executive power. For the founders, the separation of powers and the checks and balances that maintain them were arguably the most important paradigm for representative government. They were surely the most sacred. Though a man of sweeping intellect and depth, James Madison left a singular legacy in his dogged advocacy for diffuse, separate and opposed factions across government; federal, state and local.

That legacy served conservatives (Jeffersonian Democrats, Whigs, Republicans) well until the end of World War II, when a new internationalism emerged with Dwight Eisenhower’s triumph over Senator Robert Taft in the race to define the future of the Republican Party. Since then, it has been a festival of bipartisan abuses of executive power and expansion, as Taft’s defeat meant the end of any meaningful right wing foreign policy based on realism and restraint. It is not wholly outrageous that the spectre of the menacing USSR caused Americans of all stripes to adopt a utilitarian approach to the Cold War, ditching principle and tradition in the name of security from existential annihilation. After 70 years of this approach, is it not sensible to reflect and consider an alternative strategy?

Every time Rand Paul attempts to enunciate his foreign policy, one or two neoconservatives affiliated or aligned with the last Bush administration lashes out with a vicious, often unhinged diatribe against the Senator and his supposed “isolationism.” That Jennifer Rubin is Queen of The Demagogues, let there be no doubt. But Michael Gerson, Pete Wehner, Bill Kristol, Bret Stephens, David Frum, Stephen Hayes, Jonathan Tobin, David Adesnik and Elliott Abrams (and more!) also love to fling “isolationism” around with the same justification that progressives have when shouting “science!” No Valerie Jarrett style enemies’ lists here, just an objective identification of the culprits behind what is an orchestrated, dishonest smear campaign against someone with whom they disagree. That kind of behavior deserves to be called out and evidence is easy to find because, like clockwork, a new hit piece is guaranteed almost every day.

Today’s entry comes from John Yoo, the lead legal apologist for every last ounce of executive abuse and expansion undertaken by President Bush, where he says “Congress enacted in 2001 an authorization to use force against any group connected to those who carried out the 9/11 attacks. If the Islamic State is linked to the al-Qaeda terrorist network, as it appears to be (though this depends on the facts), they fall within the AUMF.” He goes on to belittle Paul and suggest he should remain in the Senate and should never be President. The tone of the piece is desperate and angry. The substance is even worse. Is anyone else flabbergasted that we have an impenetrable elite bipartisan consensus in Washington surrounding the AUMF’s authorization of force? The document from thirteen years ago which had nothing to do with third-generation offshoots of Al Qaeda but actually and explicitly only pertained to… Al Qaeda?  I really shake my head when I read the WSJ or some other reputable conservative outlet make this case; that the resolution we passed in the wake of 9/11 somehow relates to today. I understand their argument about asymmetric warfare and how “we don’t get to decide” when the war is over and all that. Yes, yes. But it is categorically not too much to ask that we fight this interminably long war by adhering to our standards and our rules. And I don’t care how Orwellian the foreign policy fetishists on the right go in their zeal to convince me that 2+2 = 5, I can never be convinced that Article II of the Constitution is more important than Article I.

The looming big debate over foreign policy will be a lot more productive and enlightening if it is conducted with civility and forthrightness. Unfortunately, the opponents of any reevaluation of the status quo have signaled that they have zero intention to play nice with Rand Paul. They genuinely hate his father, and are projecting their worst fever dream scenarios onto Rand and insisting all will be lost and the locusts shall plague us should the man who believes in the Constitution and separation of powers come to be Commander-in-Chief.

Below is my response to John Yoo and his fellow travelers in the conservative movement, based on an advanced reading of George Will’s column tomorrow, which I posted in the comments of his piece at National Review Online.


George Will has a column tomorrow (available online now) headlined “Rethinking US Foreign Policy” in which he tiptoes close to endorsing Rand Paul’s position without actually doing so. But he does offer this for Mr. Yoo to consider:

“The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the worst foreign policy decision in U.S. history, coincided with mission creep (“nation building”) in Afghanistan. Both strengthened what can be called the Republicans’ John Quincy Adams faction: “[America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

The Wilsonian-Bush approach to foreign policy is past its sell-by date, and the level of unhinged vitriol spewing from establishment (mostly from the Bush cabinet) organs towards Rand Paul is evidence of this. Any wonder why the factions currently losing the argument screech and squeal the loudest? Just look at the progressive left right now. But the fervor with which the Bush people have tried to knock down Rand Paul (and have so far failed at every turn) speaks to how cornered they feel. They wish that everyone would shut up and be scared of Islamists to the point that we forget the follies of their agenda and just blame Obama enough that the Bush Boys over at Commentary get to waltz back into power like nothing’s changed.

There wasn’t supposed to be an articulate voice against the uber-interventionists while Obama was in office. To their eternal chagrin, Rand shows up and starts moving people and changing the debate. No doubt George Will gets some stern emails for having the gall to give Rand a hearing before writing him off based on lame, hysterical arguments such as Yoo’s.

Rand Paul’s Filibuster

One year ago today, Rand Paul captivated much of the country with his filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to the CIA. The 13 hour marathon went spectacularly viral on social media and was responsible for CSPAN’s largest ratings in a while. By now very few Americans are unfamiliar with the Kentucky senator’s passionate rebuke of our clandestine drone program, and that is due to Paul’s political instinct for latching on to broad populist concerns that generally transcend partisan lines. Whether it’s reforming mandatory minimum sentencing, advocating government (state and federal) exit from marriage contracts, suing the NSA for domestic spying or championing drug war reform and felon voting rights, Paul has shown he is virtually peerless at applying his libertarian message to issues that garner broad support and thus enhance the appeal of libertarian ideas overall. Still, for all his policy entrepreneurship in just three years in the Senate, Paul is known most for his stance on drones.

As much as the filibuster was about drones, it was also about much more. It was about the wider War on Terror, as well as a plea for a restored reverence for the Bill of Rights, especially the fifth amendment. Most of all though, the filibuster was a disquisition on checks and balances and constitutional separation of powers. Rand used the hypothetical threat of an American being killed via drone strike on American soil without due process as a vivid entry point through which his audience could begin to appreciate the distorted power distribution within the branches of government.

Since Woodrow Wilson progressives have believed that government power should be concentrated in the executive branch and that the presidency demanded a “vision.” George Will describes the Wilsonian impulse as a desire for the president to interpret the constitution in a way that comports with the wishes and wants of the people and to be the voice that affirms these wants. Wilson’s view of the American founding and of separation of powers would become the legacy sentiment of the American left for a hundred years: not good enough. For Wilson and his ascendant progressive cohort, science was becoming the dominant and indisputable truth; bolstered by Darwin’s theory of evolution in biology, they set out to apply the science of evolution to human behavior. Wilson believed that government’s purpose was to efficiently guide humanity towards its inevitable endpoint of societal evolution. The perfect society would be attainable once the experts were put in charge. You know, top men

F.A. Hayek famously disparaged this inclination to impose scientific plans on a society the fatal conceit. The idea that you can acquire enough knowledge to plan an economy through the expertise of administrators is essentially the definition of hubris. That you would attempt such a project in a polity expressly founded in opposition to this conceit is nigh treasonous. And yet there was Woodrow Wilson, the first American president to directly challenge the very nature of our government’s structure and the idea that power should be diffuse and majorities neutered. Our Madisonian construct is meant to consist of constantly shifting majorities among competing segments of government, while factions are to be constrained by being discouraged on large scales, the idea being that the inevitable rise of small factions within civil society would harness productive resolutions among competing interests. Wilson and the progressives declared all this nonsense, said “Hail Science!” and went to work on a century long project to gradually erode checks and balances by growing the executive to a scale fit to house a legion of expert administrators, aka “unelected bureaucrats.”

This was the subversive message of Rand Paul’s filibuster. The crucial issue he really meant to highlight was embedded inside his bombastic portrayal of an immediate threat to our natural rights posed by drones. That is not to say that Paul was not sincere about his clarion call for reform to both overseas and domestic drone protocols. Rand is nothing if not a rabid defender of all of the Bill of Rights, and his alarm at the vague guidelines, oversight and legality of the government’s drone program was about protecting various parts of our fourth, fifth and sixth amendment rights. More than anything to do with drones though, the crux of the filibuster was about drawing attention to the bipartisan abuse of executive power.

Paul is fond of quoting Montesquieu (really, who isn’t?), the French political philosopher whose principal contribution to politics was the idea of separation of powers. A merger between executive and legislative branches would mean no liberty, according to Montesquieu’s revolutionary tripartite concept under which our government was conceived. Likewise, as Paul offered repeatedly throughout his filibuster, a combination of the executive and the judiciary can yield no justice. Paul was rightly tying the concern over due process and extrajudicial assassinations to the broader discussion of an overreaching executive. The presidency has simply become too big, with too many agencies and bureaucracies under its aegis. Congress has gradually and steadily forfeited much of its authority to the executive on everything from war powers to educational administration (as if that should be a role of the federal government at all). I believe Rand Paul was sincere when he said he would have stood and raised the same objections regardless of who was occupying the White House. This was not a partisan attack on Barack Obama, but a larger critique of the subtle degradation to our constitutional prerogative to live under three coequal branches of government.

Before Wilson, Congress had far more authority than it enjoys today and the roles of the branches were unambiguous: the legislature writes the laws, the executive branch executes the laws, and the judicial branch determines the constitutionality of the laws. But with the rise of our imperial presidency – brought to you unapologetically and enthusiastically by progressives and their presidential “visionaries” – the executive branch has become Leviathan, buttressed by unaccountable battalions of expertise known as executive agencies, able to cast the tentacled nets of the administrative state across the land, unimpeded and with little input from the other branches. Our government as currently construed is not very far from completing the progressive vision of having a benign dictator administer an expert plan for the country. As the executive branch grows and grows, and with it the number of petty authoritarians manning the cubicles at EPA, IRS, DOE, HHS, and wherever else the executive agencies have usurped power, the ability of Congress and the Supreme Court to effectively check its authority diminishes. We know who is responsible for this. Paul’s meta-narrative was not to affix blame for the bloated, corrupt, too-powerful presidency, but to cast a bright shining light on it and to spend thirteen hours subtly lamenting the fact that not enough Americans in the 21st century seem to care that government today is not functioning as it was designed.

And what better way to jar Americans out of complacency than to warn them that an unchecked executive might drop a drone through their roof. That was the real point of the filibuster, to wake Americans up to the perils of absolute power.