Mr. Paul Goes to Washington – And Reminds Us All What Politics Can Be

“Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask. Get up there with that lady that’s up  on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color or creed. That’s what you see . . . Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again.” – Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

It’s a classic scene from a classic movie, one that’s right up there with The West Wing in terms of required viewing for any true political junkie. But Washington doesn’t often come close to Frank Capra’s idealistic vision of American democracy. These days it arouses more anger and frustration than awe and admiration. Sure, throngs of people still come to stand in reverence before the grandiosity of the Lincoln Monument, and many will walk the halls of the Capitol, their eyes wide with veneration. But few, if any, feel the same way about the men and women that occupy those halls.

Instead, most tourists will return home, quickly forget the history and symbolism of the places they just visited, and turn on the television to find two backbiting pundits debating the issue of the day. Debate is dead. This is the day of divisiveness.

And yet last week we had our Mr. Smith moment. Freshman Senator Rand Paul took to the floor to launch into a talking filibuster of the President Obama’s nominee to the CIA. His goal was never to stop the nomination, but instead to get a definitive response to a question the White House had thus far refused to answer: would the U.S. government ever use a drone strike to kill an American on U.S. soil.

“I will speak until I can no longer speak,” Paul said. “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 guilty by a court.”

Paul appeared ready to speak the entire day. And then something wonderful happened. He was joined in the effort by Republican Sens. Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Jerry Moran, Marco Rubio, Saxby Chambliss and Pat Toomey. The talking filibuster even became a bipartisan effort. Sen. Ron Wyden crossed party lines to join Paul in the symbolic speech. And then, as if to put an exclamation point on the day, Sen. Mark Kirk, who is recovering from a stroke, brought Paul an apple and a thermos of tea, the same things Jimmy Stewart provisions takes to the floor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

One of my former colleagues, known for his prodigious cynicism toward the political process, told me, “There is basically nothing about politics that inspires me, but Ron Wyden joining the filibuster almost inspires me. Almost.”

And if it is almost inspiring to him, it may be enough to inspire young adults. As Noah Rothman writes for Mediaite:

“It was poetic. It was romantic. What may be most important, it reframed Congressional Republicans. All of a sudden, they were fighting for a cause with self-evident nobility that requires no public education campaign: life liberty and due process.

The political right has suffered from a romance deficit with the left for generations. The struggle against entrenched interests and insurmountable establishments has been the exclusive province of the left for as long as there has been an organized left. The young conservative, instinctively attracted to the struggle against perceived injustice, must always wrestle with and overcome their heart first in order to join the conservative movement. This is a fundamental impediment to the right’s ability to speak to the young voter.”

Paul, whether you agree or disagree with his stance (and many Republicans will disagree with him), chipped away at that romance. He proved that disagreement can engender respect so long as we treat important issues importantly. And he showed to a new generation, that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington style democracy isn’t dead, it was merely dormant.