Rand Paul has gained new prominence in ways that inevitably lead to speculation about his political future, including the possibility of a presidential run in 2016.
The Kentucky Republican's marathon filibuster that began Wednesday raised his profile above those of other junior but ambitious conservatives in the Senate, says GOP consultant David Carney.
"He's head and shoulders above everyone else," Carney says. "It was probably the single biggest profile-enhancement technique on either side of the Congress that I can remember since I worked there in the '90s."
Paul was protesting the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA, with particular attention to the Obama administration's use of drones. On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder was pressed by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee about whether the administration had the legal authority to use drones for targeted killings on American soil.
"The filibuster theater was representative of this administration's unwillingness to engage with Congress on targeted killings," says Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has followed the drone issue closely and wrote a blog post about Paul's filibuster.
The fact that Paul took to the Senate floor for nearly 13 hours made his criticism more effective than some of the inside-baseball procedural moves senators have sometimes taken, Carney says, such as placing anonymous holds on nominations or filing extraneous amendments. (Senate Republicans managed Wednesday to block the confirmation of Caitlin Halligan, a judicial nominee they've held up for two years largely through such procedural moves.)
"Having open debate on these issues is harder work for them than parliamentary tactics, but it would help the perception of Congress," he notes.
Indeed, Paul garnered good reviews even from some progressive commentators, who found his "old-school talkathon" in keeping with the best traditions of minority protest in the Senate.
There were detractors, of course. On the Senate floor Thursday, Arizona Republican John McCain chided Paul for a scenario he spun out about the risks of unchecked executive power. "To somehow allege or infer that the president of the United States is going to kill somebody like Jane Fonda, or somebody who disagrees with the policies, is a stretch of imagination which is, frankly, ridiculous," McCain said.
Paul's filibuster also got considerable attention from both traditional and social media. (The number of people following Paul on Twitter increased by about 50 percent overnight.)
"It's shades of Jimmy Stewart," says David Yepsen, who directs the Paul Simon Public Policy institute at Southern Illinois University, referring to the actor's filibuster in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Yepsen, who was a longtime political reporter with the Des Moines Register, says Paul's stance will play well with the GOP electorate in Iowa, a key early state in the 2016 presidential sweepstakes.
"The Tea Party constituency is a big part of the Republican-nominating process — it's just a fact," Yepsen says. "Rand Paul has been their champion, and what he was doing on the floor of the Senate even further curries favor with them."
But it's the Tea Party wing that has kept the GOP from taking control of the Senate, argues Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Too many Republican senators who might be more moderate, he says, are following the lead of uncompromising junior members such as Paul.
"The most important thing about that wing is how much trouble they've caused for that party in Senate races in recent cycles," Barasky says. "It's one of the reasons they struggle and aren't going to take back the Senate this time."
There has certainly been a lot of commentary over the past couple of years holding that the GOP lost winnable seats in 2010 and 2012 because they nominated politicians who were too conservatives for their state.
Some initially lumped Paul into that category because he defeated another Republican candidate in the 2010 primary who was favored by the party establishment, including Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, the Senate GOP leader.
But Paul went on to win. Now, he not only holds that seat for the party, but also has created a national platform for himself — one that might hold more potential than the presidential campaigns of his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
"He really raised his profile and stature a lot," says Carney, the GOP consultant. "He's clearly jacked himself up into any political conversation."
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