What Ron Wyden represents

Anthony Rek LeCounte Political Commentator
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Freshman U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) took the political world by storm last week with his Mad Men-era throwback: a talking filibuster against President Obama’s nominee for CIA director, John Brennan. Paul’s stand against the most questionable aspects of the Obama administration’s drone program was as simple and straightforward as it was — or should have been — avowedly nonpartisan. The Kentucky senator wanted to highlight and clarify official U.S. drone policy — which Brennan helped author — on such seemingly important questions as whether executive discretion allows for the extrajudicial killing of American citizens on American soil. After 13 hours or so, he finally got his answer.

Rand Paul is certainly a rising star, especially among more libertarian-minded Republicans and independents, thanks to his principled commitment to individual rights. However, this latest showdown on the real limits of limited government reveals far more about contemporary American politics than it does about Paul’s future. As once-strident progressives shrink away from their principles before Barack Obama’s drone policy — with a certain junior senator from Connecticut going so far as to describe the defense of our civil liberties as “background noise” — only one Democrat (three, if we’re being exceedingly charitable) exercised the moral integrity of speaking truth to the power of his own party. So raise your glasses to U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (and, perhaps, to fellow Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Dick Durbin).

If you’re not from the Great State of Oregon and yet find that the name Ron Wyden seems inexplicably familiar, it is probably because you have indeed encountered it before — fairly recently, in fact. In the last election cycle, Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan championed a sensible proposal for making Medicare solvent through the foreseeable future, rather than only until my nine-year-old cousin can legally drink. The once-bipartisan plan was developed, in part, by none other than Ron Wyden. That did make for some awkwardness last year.

Before that, this Left Coast Democrat promoted a bipartisan approach to tax reform with New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg, and later with Tea Party favorite Dan Coats, that was praised — with reservations — across the political spectrum. The pro-growth Wyden-Coats plan aimed to “hold down rates” on individuals and corporations while closing various loopholes. (Sound familiar, Mr. President?) Rather than relying on gimmicks like the Buffett Rule or pretending there is no federal spending problem, Ron Wyden has shown that effective tax reform can be fiscally and economically responsible without raising tax rates on anyone.

Earlier still, the Oregonian teamed up with Utah Republican Bob Bennett to push a promising third way on healthcare reform (which, incidentally, helps give the lie to liberal notions of conservative intransigence) to the ire of (some) leftists and unions.

Wyden is far from perfect, and he has voted along with much of Barack Obama’s lackluster agenda. But even as an “ardent liberal,” he manages to remind a bipartisan audience how statesmen should govern — a perspective generally lacking in the White House and among some on Capitol Hill. Without boasting much in the arena of “conservative bona fides,” Oregon’s senior senator has championed many libertarian causes. I expect some savvy conservative actors could make better use of that than President Obama has of Chuck Hagel’s notorious eloquence.

Oregon was once a Republican state — from Dewey through Reagan — and George W. Bush came within 7,000 votes of turning it red in 2000. Nowadays, Oregon leans Democratic. But nothing lasts forever. Whatever becomes of Wyden, Paul, or anyone else on the political stage today, successful leaders from here onward will have to expand the realm of possibilities and the number of states in play on Election Day.

The old ways won’t work anymore. It’s time for a new take on change.

This essay originally appeared at Token Dissonance.

Anthony Rek LeCounte is a Yale-educated conservative. He blogs at Token Dissonance.