The Republican establishment these days seems adept at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s nearly 13-hour filibuster last Wednesday of Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, John Brennan, led to an explosion of positive headlines. That’s why Arizona Republican Senator John McCain and South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s decision to bash Paul from the floor of the Senate the next day was so mystifying. Below are a few possible explanations for the friendly fire.
Sour grapes. As Paul’s filibuster extended into Wednesday evening, it took the focus away from a select dinner Graham was “honored” to be hosting for President Barack Obama. The president had reached out to Graham and McCain to request a gathering of Republican senators apart from the supervision of leadership. Not only did Paul steal the media spotlight, some of Graham’s sheep left the fold and supported Paul on the floor before and after the dinner, including Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, and Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
Delusions about their role with Obama. Former Reagan speechwriter (and my boss) Clark Judge has suggested McCain and Graham may think Paul is getting in the way of a possible deal with the White House to cut spending. With their dinner meeting, McCain and Graham could be trying to reprise their Gang of 14 heydays, when they successfully bridged all kinds of partisan gaps. After all, most of their former gang compatriots have since retired or died. This dinner might have been an audition for a new Senate Gang of, say, 12.
Turf battle. McCain considers national security issues his special provenance. After all, he was the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee until being term-limited out in January. He’s also on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, as is Paul. In January, he joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as did Paul. This overlap could help explain some of Friday’s defense credentials posturing.
Graham is along for the ride in the familiar role as McCain’s mini-me. At times during McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, McCain even confused Graham with his better half — such as when he introduced Graham as “Cindy Graham,” switching “Lindsey” with his wife Cindy McCain’s first name. What McCain started, Graham chased. He also serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Pavlovian response. Paul invoked Jane Fonda during the debate, saying, “We already know that a large percentage of the drone strikes overseas were not naming the person. Is that going to be the standard? We also know that we have targeted people for sympathizing with the enemy. We talked about that before. In the 1960s, we had many people who sympathized with North Vietnam. Many people will remember Jane Fonda swiveling herself around in the North Vietnamese artilleries and thinking gleefully that she was just right at home with the North Vietnamese. Now, while I’m not a great fan of Jane Fonda, I’m really not so interested in putting her on a drone kill list either.” McCain publicly rebuked the analogy as “simply false.” In case you forgot, McCain was captured and tortured by the North Vietnamese in 1967. He tends to take references to Vietnam fairly personally.
Insanity. “He’s crazy,” a senior Republican leadership aide told me. Enough said.
Graham and McCain need to open their eyes and look at the results of their tirades. Paul demanded answers from the White House and got them, garnering glowing press from a liberal-leaning media while invigorating the conservative and libertarian grassroots. He even got props from lefties like Van Jones, the ACLU, and Code Pink while reclaiming privacy as a conservative issue. The headlines coming out of Graham and McCain’s dinner party with the president largely benefited Obama. They were unwitting tools in helping to create the narrative that the president was reaching out in a bipartisan gesture. This storyline is a naked attempt by the White House to mitigate the damage created by its exaggerations about the sequester’s effects.
Obama’s approval rating dropped seven points in the week after the sequester. Why are these Republican senators helping him fix that?
The White House’s official response to Paul answered his questions. Its unofficial response came from Paul’s own Republican colleagues. Poor form, gentlemen. No wonder McCain lost in 2008.
Rick Eberstadt contributed to this article.
Anneke E. Green is a senior director at The White House Writers Group. Previously she served in President George W. Bush’s speechwriting office and Senator Mitch McConnell Majority Whip’s office.