After hemming and hawing for days, and consistently evading the question with a rhetorical deflection to process, Rand Paul finally came clean about his opinion on President Obama's plan to combat ISIS. He isn't for arming the Syrian rebels but supports the bombing campaign against ISIS in Iraq. He also pledged not to vote for boots on the ground.
But if we didn't know before, we surely know now what truly matters to him. And that is that the president makes a pro-forma request for permission --- which, by the way, he would be happy to approve.
“What has the president done? What is the worst thing he’s done? It’s the usurpation of power. The idea that there is no separation of powers or that he is above that separation. If you want to tremble and worry about the future of our republic, listen to the president when he says, ‘Well, Congress won’t act. Therefore I must,’” Paul said. “Had he come forward and done the honorable thing, we would have approved. I would have approved an authorization of force.
Most liberals agree that the Congress should be the body to declare war. It's the most consequential decision the government makes and they all should have a stake in making it. But since it's clear from both history and Rand Paul that they would approve it anyway perhaps we could move beyond this tiresome kabuki dance and simply say they did. Perhaps then we can discuss the merits of the war itself, which, contrary to Rand Paul's assertion, really is the more important issue in all this.
The question is why everyone is so interested in what Paul says about this one way or the other. He's running for president but so is half the Republican Party. He represents a small handful of reluctant GOP warriors even on his best day. True, there are likely to be a few more partisan Republicans who will take the opportunity to oppose anything a Democratic president wants to do but that will most often be because they believe he isn't going far enough, not that he's going too far. For instance, Florida GOP congressman Tom Rooney, who said of arming the Syrian rebels, “It’s clearly not enough. If ISIS is truly a national security threat that needs to be destroyed, then we need to destroy them. And anybody you talk to who knows what they’re talking about believes that arming the rebels is insufficient.” Some are even arguing for combat troops. Member of the House Republican leadership Pete Sessions of Texas said, "If we’re in this to win then boots on the ground not only will be necessary but that will be something that will save American lives ultimately in the long run.”
On the other hand there is a good-size faction in the Democratic Party that is consistent on all the issues over which Rand Paul makes headlines and nobody ever talks about them. Sure, it stands to reason that a Republican will gain some attention for being a (sometimes) war skeptic because they are so rare. But it's unfair that Democrats with equal or better records on civil liberties and war are given such short shrift and ignored by the media as if they're irrelevant.
Dave Weigel at Slate pointed out that of the 60 Democratic representatives still in the Congress who voted against the Iraq War, 22 voted for arming the Syrian rebels yesterday and 38 voted against it. And most of those who won in 2006 on an anti-war platform voted no as well. Congressman Raul Grijalva spoke for many of the no votes when he said, "While I am deeply troubled by the violence spreading in the region, I will not cast a vote that only further complicates and intensifies the fight." The funding was passed with more Republicans voting for it than Democrats. Whatever anti-war strain exists in the House, it's centered in a Democratic caucus not the GOP.
The Senate features the same dynamic. You have Rand Paul making speeches that everyone finds fascinating, but there are many more liberal senators saying the same things, with even more conviction since they have been doing it from the beginning. For instance, you have the socialist from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats, Bernie Sanders, saying nearly exactly the same thing (without the whining about the separation of powers) as Paul:
Sanders said he supports President Barack Obama’s judicious use of airstrikes which already have shown some success, but in opposing the resolution Sanders said, “I fear very much that supporting questionable groups in Syria who will be outnumbered and outgunned by both ISIS and the Assad regime could open the door to the United States once again being dragged back into the quagmire of long-term military engagement.”
And he too is mulling over a presidential run and probably has just as many likely Democratic primary voters as Paul has GOP supporters. Indeed, when it comes to civil liberties and matters of war and peace, they will have similar platforms. The question is, who will have more influence in their party, and it would be very surprising if it were Paul, considering the numbers of like-minded individuals in their caucuses. The Democrats can boast civil libertarians like Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, the latter two of whom are currently involved in tough reelection races. They have never backed down from their skepticism about Afghanistan and the drone war or their criticisms of the NSA and government secrecy. And yet, when it comes to getting attention from the media -- or even from liberals who are constantly kvetching about the inconstancy of the Democrats -- it's crickets. Meanwhile we all hang on Rand Paul's every incoherent utterance even as we all know that while the authoritarian impulse thrives in both parties it's the GOP that really makes a fetish of it.
Rand Paul is not the spokesman for the entire civil liberties community or the anti-war faction of this nation. In fact there are principled Democrats and Independents whom liberals should celebrate on these issues instead --- after all, they aren't going to vote against NSA spying with one breath while cutting Social Security and Medicare the next. They're not going to demand that the government get out of our lives today and then vote to restrict a woman's right to control her own reproduction tomorrow. They won't rail about liberty even as they fight to ensure that gay people don't have the freedom to marry. You can't have it all, none of these people are perfect. But you can have everything Rand Paul is offering --- and a whole lot more common human decency.