Rand Paul’s 12 hours and 52 minutes of speechifying was the epitome of the sort of old-school protest move that’s fallen so far out of favor in recent years. But his filibuster, which ended at 12:39 this morning, turned into such a social media sensation that it could actually presage a what’s-old-is-new-again shift in the way the Senate operates.
Democratic leaders and some of the more influential junior senators in their caucus have become quickly annoyed at how little their “reform” deal with McConnell has done in the past month to curb Republican interest in stopping bills and confirmations with only the threat of endless delay. (It happened again yesterday morning, when the GOP insisted on making the other side come up with 60 votes, which they couldn’t do, to stop a theoretical filibuster against D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Caitlin Halligan.) And those Democrats may have found an unlikely champion in Paul, one of the tea party movement’s champions and a probable 2106 presidential aspirant.
The most dramatic proposal for restraining the use of dilatory tactics that remains under serious discussion is to make senators do what Paul did: Actually engage in the behavior that’s supposed to define the world’s greatest deliberative body, by publicly explaining, to the rest of his colleagues and the country following along remotely, why he would raise the bar for Senate action from “majority rules” to “supermajority required.” His case for blocking John Brennan’s confirmation as CIA director, at least until Obama promises he’ll never order a drone to kill an American citizen on American soil, was an expansive, passionate, often compelling but occasionally muddy articulation of the civil liberties principals that are where the political far left and far right often find common cause. And – because of the nationally televised theatrics involved – it became a viral social media sensation in ways no op-ed or speech to an advocacy group ever could.
“Standwithrand is trending worldwide, and that’s pretty cool,” tea party Texas freshman Ted Cruz – one of a dozen colleagues who provided Paul with some backup speechmaking -- exulted about the use of the filubuster’s hashtag. The Senate GOP campaign organization reported the speech had generated 30,000 likes on its Facebook page alone – and also had rasied almost $100,000 in a few hours for a party that’s been laboring hard how to do better with the young and would-be hip.
Something similar happened when Bernie Sanders railed against a bipartisan tax deal during the last such “talking” filibuster, more than two years ago, and when Bob Byrd took several hours almost to explain his reasons for turning early against the Iraq War. Live filibusters rarely if ever swing senators’ votes, but they are proving time and again to have the power to rally the base, generate coverage for underdog causes, and raise money to boot. Days of quorum calls and C-Span classical music -- accompanied by so much majority side bellyaching about the minority’s belief in death by delay -- seem to do nothing more than help hold congressional approval ratings at historic lows.
What all this means is that both sides may soon decide that, if the slow pace of business is inevitable (and 60 votes is the new normal) then telegenic talkathons are the best way possible to filling the void.