"Barack Obama of 2007 would be right down here with me arguing against this drone strike program if he were in the Senate," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., declared in the course of his 13-hour Senate "talking filibuster," which delayed a confirmation vote for now-CIA chief John Brennan.
That's the thing; the Obama of 2007 no longer exists.
Obama 2007 opposed enhanced interrogation techniques that the CIA used on al-Qaida leaders under President George W. Bush. Obama 2013 banned the use of those techniques. Now he orders others to just kill al-Qaida terrorists.
The imperious president has an attorney general who, when Paul asked whether it is constitutional for the president to authorize a drone strike against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil without a trial, would not respond with an unequivocal "no." In a letter addressed to Paul on Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder even wrote that it is possible "to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate." Paul then chose to filibuster the Brennan vote until the administration gave him a clear response.
On Thursday, finally, Holder gave a simple answer: "No." The Senate then voted 63-34 to confirm Brennan.
If the White House won with its CIA pick, then it also lost in the process. Rand's filibuster clearly was rooted in principle, whereas the president's liberal use of drones clashes with his pre-White House posture. The guy who opposed allowing interrogators to so much as shove 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed during questioning was dragging his feet when asked about domestic drone strikes.
Rand's rhetoric united the Libertarian-leaning right with the far-left Codepink, which furiously sent out tweets with the "StandWithRand" hashtag into the wee hours. One Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, joined Rand in his "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" moment. Quoth Wyden: "Every American has the right to know when their government believes that it is allowed to kill them."
Worse, for the administration, Wyden announced that both he and Rand "feel that this is just the beginning of this debate."
The Brennan vote saw 13 Republicans join Democrats in supporting Obama's pick. "I was going to vote against Brennan, until the filibuster," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Roll Call. "I thought Brennan was arrogant, a bit shifty. I am going to vote for Brennan now because it's become a referendum on the drone program."
I disagree. One can support the 2011 drone attack that killed American-born Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen and still welcome a debate about the appropriate use of drones. The power to kill one's enemies by remote control is so seductive that it should not be used absent rigorous self-examination.
Besides, why did it take days for Holder to just say no?
Three men who belong to the Senate Democratic Caucus — Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Pat Leahy and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — voted against Brennan. It can't be easy to see yourself as strong on civil liberties when your party's top cat has such a schizophrenic approach — waterboarding bad, drones good — to human rights.
To me, the big question is: Why did Obama change from waterboard foe to drone devotee? Once in office, did he realize he was wrong about Bush policies — in which case he should say so — or has he come to believe that he is so darn wonderful that he can do no wrong?