Power vs. liberty: A lovers’ quarrel

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The much talked-about schism in the Republican Party is better defined as a schism between the lovers of liberty and the lovers of power.

But let’s be more specific: This schism is really a love triangle as the libertarians and authoritarians vie for the affections of the American people.

It’s nothing new, a spat as old as the political feud between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, but it made for headlines last week when Sen. Rand Paul thumbed his nose at his Republican handlers and went directly to the American people with a real live filibuster on the floor of the Senate.

His concern? Whether or not the Obama administration would ever consider using drone strikes against American citizens on American soil as they have done on foreign soil.

Now, you and I may think this point would have already been settled by the U.S. Constitution, but Sen. Paul was worried that this president (or some future president) might use national security as a lever to unhitch the Fifth Amendment’s “due process clause” from the Constitution in order to create a loophole big enough to squeeze through a deadly drone or two.

Imagine that! A filibuster in support of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights! Pretty cheeky stuff for a freshman senator — in fact so cheeky that Sen. Paul in just 13 hours took on the dimensions of a political folk hero, something that it took his father Ron Paul 40 years to do.

Paul used the nomination of John Brennan as CIA director as the putative cause of his filibuster, because Brennan had previously supported drone strikes overseas. But Paul wasn’t aiming at Brennan so much as the entire national security infrastructure which under the last two presidents has chiseled away at various constitutional protections in order to prop up its own power base.

And because no one had seen a real “non-stop talking” filibuster in years, his heady disputation riveted the entire nation for the better part of a day and a night, until at long last the junior senator from Kentucky boyishly admitted that he had to answer the call of nature.

Maybe it was all that attention Rand Paul was getting that forced an open confrontation between him and the old dogs of the Republican Senators Club. After all, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham and a delegation of GOP poobahs were dining with President Obama at the plush Jefferson Hotel at the same time Sen. Paul was auditioning for the Jimmy Stewart role in the remake of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

McCain and Graham are used to chewing up the scenery in the long-running D.C. soap opera, so they may well have resented having to give up top billing to a political neophyte. Who knows? Maybe they had principled reasons for attacking their fellow senator, but it sure looks as if they just didn’t like watching their hold on power slipping away. In an interview with the Huffington Post, McCain dissed Sen. Paul as just one more of the “wacko birds” who are giving the Republican Party a bad name. Note the emphasis on party — because to politicians like McCain, “party” is the equivalent of “power” and whatever damages the party brand puts his own hold on power at risk.

Graham was even more obtuse in his response to Sen. Paul’s filibuster. He decided to reverse himself and support Brennan, not out of principle but just to thumb his nose at Sen. Paul.

I suppose to casual observers, it may seem as if this lover’s quarrel is being waged exclusively in the Republican Party. But that is just because there are still enough libertarians left in the GOP to make it seem like a fair fight between freedom and power, whereas the vast majority of Democratic office-holders have long since adopted the role of dominatrix to the pliant and plaintive people they pretend to serve.

If that seems like a partisan slap, it is not. One of the main signs of love of power is a slavish devotion to party — because it is through party, not principle, that power is usually obtained and almost always retained. True libertarians, on the other hand, usually honor principal above party, and thus are almost always doomed to being exiled from power when they refuse to toe the line set forth by their party elders.

In a very real sense, this battle has already been concluded in the Democratic Party, where party discipline has all but erased diversity of opinion, but in the Republican Party, there is still an active minority which hopes to supplant party loyalty with devotion to the Constitution.

Whether they can achieve that goal is a long shot, of course, and even the occasional battle won such as Sen. Paul seems to have accomplished does not ensure a decisive victory in the war.

After all, many who now love power once loved liberty, but eventually spurned her for the ample rewards which power distributes to its paramours. For more on that point, all additional questions should be directed to Sens. McCain and Graham.

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