The Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, is the annual Washington convention at which Republican activists get together to figure out where the party is headed and to anoint future leaders.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is assumed to be a 2016 presidential contender, was Thursday’s headliner. But the loudest cheers from the largely college-age crowd weren’t for Rubio. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) gave a fiery speech in which he seemed to be formally stepping into the role long occupied by his father.
That would be Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman and three-time presidential candidate who retired last year, leaving millions of dedicated followers without a leader to press their uncompromising case for small government. The elder Paul’s opposition to the Patriot Act, criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and support for legalizing marijuana won him a core of ardent admirers, but left him something of a novelty—and outcast—within the Republican establishment—and even among many Tea Partiers, who thought he went too far, even for them. (Paul said he wouldn’t have ordered the raid on Osama bin Laden because it violated the sovereignty of Pakistan.)
Since Rand Paul was elected to the Senate in 2010, there’s been a lot of speculation among his supporters as to whether he would take over for Ron Paul and try to put a more accessible face on his father’s brand of politics.
Today Rand Paul seemed to do just that. “I was told I got 10 measly minutes,” he said when he took the podium in the ballroom of the Gaylord National Hotel, just outside Washington. “But just in case, I’ve got 13 hours ready to go.”
He was referring to his filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination for CIA director last week, in which Paul sounded off against the Obama administration’s drone policy for 13 hours on the Senate floor. During his oration, Paul suggested the government could bomb Americans on U.S. soil to silence political enemies. “Are you going to just drop a drone Hellfire missile on Jane Fonda?” Paul said at one point during his filibuster. “Are you going to drop a Hellfire missile on those at Kent State?” Some party elders ridiculed Paul’s remarks. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) called them “ludicrous.”
Inside the ballroom at the Gaylord, though, the conservative crowd was firmly on Rand Paul’s side and cheered him lustily as he took a victory lap for his filibuster. “My question to the president was about more than just killing Americans on American soil,” he said. “My question was about whether presidential power has limits.”
Paul articulated a very different vision than most Republicans of the trade-off between national security and liberty. “President Obama, who seemed, once upon a time, to respect civil liberties, has become the president who signed a law allowing for the indefinite detention of an American citizen,” he said. “Indeed, a law that allows an American citizen to be sent to Guantanamo Bay without a trial.”
He quoted Dwight D. Eisenhower: “How far can you go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without? If we destroy our enemy but lose what defines our freedom in the process, have we really won?”
If there was ever a doubt that Rand Paul is stepping in to take up where his father left off, there isn’t any longer.