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Whippersnapper vs. Establishment

Battle takes shape in Senate

Published: Thursday, March 14, 2013 9:29 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — Republican Sen. John McCain is pushing 80 now, but he still has those jaws and the Teddy Roosevelt teeth that look as if they could chomp through a baseball bat.

Yet no matter how vital his bite, the Arizona Republican is getting up in years. So he can’t help but add to the litany of stupid things he’s said.

We all say stupid things, but what came out of McCain’s mouth the other day about fellow Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s heroic filibuster on the Senate floor wasn’t merely foolish.

It was Homeric in its stupidity.

Paul, a young libertarian whippersnapper from Kentucky, took to the floor for some 13 hours, arguing that the Constitution was sacred, and that President Barack Obama can’t use drones to execute Americans without trial.

Paul’s courage became a sensation. Tea party folks on the right and even some on the left were thrilled that someone would stand for civil liberties.

But McCain, crotchety establishmentarian that he is, wasn’t impressed.

“If Mr. Paul wants to be taken seriously, he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids,” McCain said. “I don’t think what happened yesterday is helpful to the American people.”

Impressionable libertarian kids?

Finally, the old establishment Republican bulls express their true feelings about young Americans who dare think the Constitution is worth keeping.

It sounds like the first shots in a war that the crotchety establishment types are destined to lose. And if they don’t lose soon, the Republican Party is finished. It might as well just crawl up onto grandpa’s bookshelf, plop down next to the Whigs and begin collecting dust.

“I will speak until I can no longer speak,” Paul said at the outset of his filibuster. “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.”

Radical stuff? Perhaps to modern America, the nation primed by the department called “Homeland Security” that pumps fear into the national heart as a means to increase its power.

It’s happened so quickly — under both Republicans and Democrats — that we’ve grown numb to freedom lost. We’ve accepted cameras watching us on our streets and the airport guards eager to pat our private areas. And now there are flying robots in the skies that watch and kill.

But Paul said no. That must have sent an uneasy tingle up the president’s leg. Because he changed course.

For weeks now, Obama’s government had insisted he had the right to use drones and kill Americans without trial. Obama’s drone-protecting grand vizier, Attorney General Eric Holder, made a fool of himself defending the idea.

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, fixed Holder like a bug on a board. He asked Holder in committee if the Constitution allowed for killing Americans suspected of terrorism, even if they were merely sitting quietly in a cafe.

Holder kept weaseling, saying it wouldn’t be appropriate. But Cruz didn’t care whether it was appropriate. Cruz demanded to know if it was constitutional. Holder broke.

“Translate my ‘appropriate’ to ‘no,’” Holder sighed. “I thought I was saying ‘no.’ All right? ‘No.’”

On Thursday, the president had Holder write Paul a letter of surrender.

“Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?” wrote Holder to Paul. “The answer to that question is no.”

The answer is “no”? Why did it take weeks for the White House to figure that one out? In the spirit of bipartisanship, Obama’s divine right of drones had support from Republicans like McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham.

A few months ago, they wanted to drop airborne troops into Libya. Now they just support robot death from the sky.

“I don’t worry about (drones killing Americans),” Graham said. “Here’s what I worry about: that al-Qaida has killed 2,958 of us and is going to add to the total if we let our guard down. And I will do everything in my power to protect this president — who I disagree with a lot — and future presidents in having an ill-informed Congress take over the legitimate authority under the Constitution and the laws of this land to be commander in chief on behalf of all of us.”

Smooth answer. Nothing like campaigning against a know-nothing Congress on behalf of an imperial presidency.

But using fear talk in order to give the power of life and death to the federal security forces — and their natural antipathy to individual freedom — isn’t remotely conservative.

It’s statist.

Perhaps McCain and Graham hadn’t yet digested the sumptuous peace dinner feast Democrat Obama put on for them and 10 other Republican senators at Plume, a fancy gourmet restaurant in Washington.

I checked the menu. Plume offers $85 meals, including Lobster “Thermidor” with a white wine saffron galcage and herbed baby potatoes; Moulard Duck Breast; and filet of beef with truffled potato mousseline, bone marrow and Madeira Jus.

And Rand Paul? As they feasted, he stood on his feet in the Senate, hour after hour, defending the Constitution and the rights of Americans not to be executed without trial.

He didn’t have duck breast or bone marrow or whatever McCain chomped on with those choppers.

But he did get to wolf down a candy bar.

John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send him email at jskass@tribune.com.

©2013 Chicago Tribune Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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