To filibuster or to not filibuster. That is the question.
Ok, so it seems a little cliché to use a Hamlet quote in a political piece, but what the heck I think it gets the point across.
In fact, I myself would go as far to say this question, and undoubtedly many more, were tossed around Rand Paul’s office for a few weeks.
But we all know which side of the question Rand Paul chose: to filibuster.
Many Americans watched as Paul delivered his filibuster to the Senate floor on Wednesday, March 6, 2013. In short, Senator Paul was basically stalling the vote of President Obama’s nomination for C.I.A. director, John O. Brennan, in an effort to speak out against drones.
Senator Paul said, “I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination for the C.I.A. I will speak until I can no longer speak. I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.”
And so it began, 13 long hours of Senator Paul speaking on and on and on about whatever he wanted. He even had a few guests join him, both Republicans and Democrats alike. For lack of a better word, it was truly a spectacle.
But maybe a spectacle is what Senator Paul was trying to achieve. The opposition to the nomination and use of drones seems genuine enough, but what if there was some other reason that sparked this filibuster? Say, some good ole publicity?
Sarah Binder and Steven Smith examine the history of the filibuster in the book titled, “Politics or Principle? Filibustering in the United States Senate,” The authors believe that there has been a transformation in the use of the filibuster, where it was once used by Senate minorities to halt legislation favoring the Senate majority’s objectives and is now used by Senator’s for personal gain. Binder and Smith refer to the latter as “trivial” uses of the filibuster, such as parochial and personal concerns “rather than the issues of deep national significance.”
In an interview with Senator George Mitchell, (D), 1993 majority leader, Mitchell expanded on Binder’s thesis. Mitchell said that the filibuster was once hardly ever used, and now it seems “it is used as part of a deliberate pattern…”
So was Senator Paul’s filibuster deliberate? Was it used for personal gain?
Let’s think it through. Senator Paul has stated interest in the 2016 Republican nominee for President. But he’s also been told that idea is a long shot. So how does he improve his chances? Filibuster = publicity = improving his chances.
But are we being too cynical here?
Jeffery Alexander says we are not. In his book, “The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power,” Alexander argues that performance is the central feature of the battle for power. He says, “Politicians do things with words. They want to convince us of how things are. If their performances are successful, we are persuaded.”
Was Senator Paul’s performance successful? Before answering this question, let’s consider another important pillar in this performance: the media.
In Tim Cook’s book, “Governing with the News: The News Media as a Political Institution,” he argues that the media has become an institution which is now part of the governing system. Cook believes the media is a means to raise issues and help them advance. In regards to politicians and how they use the media, Cook says, “all political actors in Washington are now using publicity as part of their strategies for governing and to a greater extent than they were twenty or thirty years ago.” He continues by arguing that the media strategies used by politicians are carefully designed to “attract media attention to build a reputation that can be used to reinvest that attention…”
Senator Paul is a junior senator. He has been told his chance of a Republican nomination for President is a long shot. So what does he do? He stages a performance through the means of a filibuster. He garners media attention to build a reputation. Was he successful? I think so. Did he increase his chances for a nomination? We will just have to wait and see.
Jeffery Alexander, The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Sarah Binder and Steven Smith, Politics or Principle? Filibustering in the United States Senate. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1997.
Timothy Cook, Governing With the news: The News Media as a Political Institution. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.