When Rand Paul used an old-fashioned filibuster to draw attention to President Obama's drone program on Wednesday (and into Thursday), his fellow maybe-2016 candidates saw an opportunity for themselves: to draw attention to their own brand. This is most obvious in their choice of pop culture references that, while not always relevant to the question of whether Obama can drone a citizen in a Houston café, were perfectly on-brand. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio quoted The Godfather and Jay-Z, while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz quoted Shakespeare's Henry V and Patton. Yes, in a filibuster meant to protest the president's unchecked power to kill people outside of war zones, the junior senator from Texas quoted a speech about the importance of mercilessly killing our enemies. (The most famous line: "Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.")
It's no wonder Cruz and Rubio — in addition to several other senators not really known for their concern for civil liberties — seized the moment. Though Paul talked for hours about the importance of the protections of the Fourth Amendment, many pundits focused on his media savvy. "Paul proved on Wednesday that a filibuster can be very good politics," The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan said. It was the rare positive media spectacle for Republicans. "It was one of the first examples in a long time of messaging that made the base feel like we had control of the day," GOP strategist Rick Wilson told the Post. "Rand Paul's stock price rose sharply today..." Matt Drudge agreed. "Obama busy courting Graham, McCain, yesterday's mashed potatoes," Drudge tweeted, referring to Obama's dinner date Wednesday to discuss the budget. "Shift tonight is to new generation. Stunning media skills #StandWithRand."
The younger senators were clearly awed by the love for Paul. (John McCain and Lindsey Graham were disturbed by it. "To somehow allege or infer that the President of the United States is going to kill somebody like Jane Fonda, or somebody who disagrees with the policies, is a stretch of imagination which is, frankly, ridiculous," McCain said on the Senate floor Thursday.) Cruz said late Wednesday night that he wanted Paul to know how much praise he was getting on social media. "So I will read a series of tweets," Cruz said. Then he read some tweets. Also some retweets. Then he moved on to establishing his brand as the tough intellectual fighting the liberal forces of darkness. As Texas solicitor general, Cruz explained, he defended his state in Medellín v. Texas, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the International Court of Justice couldn't overrule a state court. "No president has the authority to give up U.S. sovereignty and make the state court subject to the world court," Cruz said during his filibuster speech, showing that he, too, was worried about presidential power. He noted that John Yoo, the former George W. Bush adviser with a rather expansive view of presidential power, had been on his side in the case. But Cruz did not mention that Yoo was not on Paul's side with respect to droning on American soil. As the American Spectator's Matt Purple noted, Yoo co-authored a Bush administration memo saying, "The president has ample constitutional and statutory authority to deploy the military against international or foreign terrorists operating within the United States." Cruz defended Bush's foreign policy in 2004.
Rubio is establishing himself as the hip, young boy-faced 41-year-old Republican senator. After Cruz quoted from Shakespeare and Patton, Rubio one-upped him. "I didn't bring my Shakespeare books," Rubio said. (Zing?) "Let me quote a modern-day poet. His name is Wiz Khalifa. He has a song called 'Work Hard, Play Hard.' I think if you look at the time it's a time many of our colleagues expected to be home playing hard, but I'm happy that we're here still working hard on this issue." After using a rap reference to make a dad joke, Rubio moved on. "In one of the great American movies, there's a quote -- I don't have the Patton quotes..." (Zing II?) "but I have the Godfather quotes." Rubio continued, "This is one of the best known ones. He says, 'I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse.' To me these are... straightforward offers [Obama] can't refuse and yet they've been refused, and I think that's pretty stunning."
Then Rubio said that if George W. Bush were president, partisans would be acting very differently. "I want you to imagine what this conversation would be like tonight if the president was George W. Bush," Rubio said. "That takes me back to another modern-day poet by the name of Jay-Z, in one of his songs he wrote, 'It's funny what seven days can change. It was all good just a week ago.' Well I dunno if it was all good a week ago but I can tell you that things have really changed." That is an excellent point. Liberals (excluding Glenn Greenwald and others) don't seem nearly as mad about civil liberties as they were under Bush. But then, some conservatives sure seem a lot more mad than they were four years ago. Conservatives like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who joined the filibuster and announced he would oppose Brennan's nomination. McConnell is not known as a staunch defender of civil liberties. He was staunchly opposed to closing Guantanamo, for example, and bringing detainees to U.S. soil to be tried. But then Rubio hasn't devoted his career to defending civil liberties, either. If he had, he might have known to quote the Jay-Z song that's actually about the Fourth Amendment.