Whatever his other "out there" political views, Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster was thrilling. It was thrilling merely as a civics lesson: This is how filibusters were done before the 1980s, where a senator had to take and hold the floor, maybe with the help of other senators, maybe alone. Sometimes it was in the service of an immoral cause, as with Strom Thurmond's epic 24 hour and 18 minute stand against the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Others acted in the interests of republican govenment, as with Bernie Sanders' filibuster opposing extension of the Bush tax cuts. Even if you think Paul's was a stunt, it showed how we should insist that senators actually take the floor and defend their position, rather than telling the Majority Leader they will deny him the 60 votes for cloture and calling it a filibuster.
It was thrilling because, if only for a few hours and largely on social media, it broke out national spell of stupid. President Obama, our constitutional-law professor, has taken as casual an approach to civil liberties as his predecessor, perhaps even more so. Paul wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking him about the drone program and whether it could be used by the president, without due process, to kill American citizens on American soil. Instead of a simple "no," Holder, who has refused to extend the rule of law to the big banks, implied that the president indeed held this power. This is an outrage. It is fundamentally unconstitutional. Where the hell were the supposed "liberal Democrats"? It was left to the usually kooky Rand Paul to actually act like an American senator in the best tradition of the office.
Finally, it was interesting in the way it scrambled the usual hard partisan lines and momentarily forced open some minds, revealed character. Paul's support and criticism came from across the spectrum. Chief among his critics were wealthy Republican John Sidney McCain III and his cocker spaniel Lindsey Graham. Why do these men have any standing on any topic, especially national security? Both remain unapologetic supporters of the war in Iraq, apparently still believing those "weapons of mass destruction" are still there, somewhere. John McCain is the best the Republican Party has as a senior statesman? It's a sick joke.
The ability to make war and the control of armies and fleets are, throughout history, the greatest threat to republics. This is why the Founders gave Congress sole power to declare and fund wars, and made the president commander in chief. It's not a foolproof system — from the Mexican War and Spanish-American War to Iraq, we can see how public opinion, hysteria, greed and partisan discipline can lead the nation into wicked or foolish conflicts. But ever since the Korean "police action," as supposedly blunt-speaking Harry Truman first called it, the checks and balances have been eroding. One big consequence was Vietnam. The usurpation of presidential power reached new highs under Bush and Cheney, but Mr. Obama has not sought to rebalance things. Far from it.
Do not be fooled by the circus of the Congress, sequester, etc. It is the war-making powers of the president and national security state where grave danger lies. Probably not with Mr. Obama; with a successor, surely. The breakdown of our party system and Congress inability to address the real issues facing us. The cost of soft empire (or, if you wish, playing world umpire with a few atrocities on the side) and the risks of a miscalculation (say when China takes Taiwan and we lose five very expensive carriers, and must decide whether to go nuclear or withdraw from the Far East). These things are real and will empower a man or woman on the white horse to take control. Particularly when things start to get hairy with climate change, when the "hundred year supply of natural gas" and shale-oil boom turn out to be another lie told to placate the duhs and ignos. He or she will control the military and (thaks, Buford) Die Homeland Security apparatus. He or she will think they're doing us a favor, saving the nation. Caesar certainly did.