Why Rand Paul's Case Against the White House Matters

National Journal

Why was that so hard? Only after Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky rallied public support against President Obama did the White House answer a simple and constitutionally critical question: "Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on an American soil?"

Attorney General Eric Holder wrote a two-sentence letter to Paul on Thursday, saying the answer is no.

White House spokesman Jay Carney added that "if the United States were under attack, there were an imminent threat," the president has the authority to protect the country from that assault.

Shortly after Paul ended his talkathon, I wondered in a post why Obama refused to answer Paul's question:

If it wasn't bizarre enough to hear Shakespeare, Patton, Jay-Z, and Wiz Khalifa quoted on the Senate floor this morning, Sen. Rand Paul's nearly 13-hour old-school filibuster on drone warfare exposed this jarring irony: A constitutional scholar who rode his antiwar views to the White House stands defiantly to the right of the GOP — and probably on the wrong side of history.

What's up with President Obama?

Here's what I think is up:

The pace of politics and policy is mind-blowing. Paul is a junior senator from Kentucky, a darling of the tea party and libertarians who thrives on the margins of the political establishment. And yet he was able to cow the White House by harnessing Twitter and other social media to rally public support. Sen. John McCain, a Republican from another era, sniffed at Paul's appeal to young voters in "dorm rooms." Like the anti-piracy legislation thwarted by online activists last year, the Paul drone filibuster may mark a turning point in American activism. For better or worse, public opinion is now more democratized than ever.

Paul is a force. What started as a Paul-only affair quickly turned into an after-midnight gathering of GOP senators who were literally summoned to Capitol Hill by supporters via Twitter and e-mail. This burst of exposure and influence will help Paul's prospects for 2016, when he could seek the GOP nomination and, possibly, as many Republicans fear, divide the party.

Obama's power has limits. As commander in chief in an era of terror, Obama generally has the public behind him on matters of national security. He is the president, after all, who ordered the execution of Osama bin Laden. Polls show that Rand's civil-libertarian views are not exactly in step with a majority of Americans. And, still, the White House was forced to answer a question it had ducked for weeks. At the same time, Obama is suddenly willing to lobby Republican lawmakers personally and aggressively on the federal budget. His job-approval numbers are slipping, according to a variety of public and private polls, which might explain these two reversals.

Presidents should be afraid of the dark. Obama's lack of transparency on the drone-warfare program is jarring, given his pledges to run the most open administration in U.S. history. Voters will give the president plenty of slack on national security, but how much is too much?

This isn't about Obama. As I wrote before Carney's statement, Rand Paul and his cohorts were not (as John McCain claimed) suggesting that Obama himself was out to kill Americans on U.S. soil. The point is the precedent: Even if you trust Obama's judgment and fidelity to the Constitution, Obama is creating new powers for future leaders — perhaps a president you wouldn't empower as judge, jury, and executioner.

Appearing on CNN on Thursday afternoon, Paul said he was satisfied with Holder's response.

"I'm quite happy with the answer and I'm disappointed it took a month and a half and a root canal to get it," Paul said.