Frank Rich on the National Circus: Even Rand Paul Can Get It Right Once a Term

Photo: CSPAN

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Rand Paul’s filibuster, Jeb Bush’s immigration snafu, and Nate Thayer’s righteous freelance anger.

Rand Paul engaged in a classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington–style filibuster yesterday, opposing the administration’s drone policy by droning on for nearly thirteen hours to hold up the Senate vote confirming John Brennan as CIA chief. What did you think of Paul’s old-fashioned intransigence? And is Paul’s long-windedness on behalf of civil liberties (and his own self-regard, no doubt) an argument against filibuster reform? 
A stopped clock is right twice a day, and though Rand Paul may be a flake, his all-too-short-lived piece of performance art was admirable for several reasons. First, he actually stimulated some debate about the Obama administration’s murky and arguably extralegal use of drones. Second, he made a case for, not against, filibuster reform. If filibusters required those blocking Senate action to actually give old-school Jimmy Stewart–style speeches, they’d be few and far between, and we’d possibly have a less dysfunctional Senate. By ending his filibuster only when he finally had to take a leak, Paul made a powerful case for the proposition that our government might function far more smoothly if our elected representatives’ bladders rather than their brains called the shots. Finally, the Paul filibuster was a graphic demonstration of the power of the radical tea-party right in the GOP. Though what remains of the Republican Establishment turned up its nose at his show — it served only to “fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms,” according to The Wall Street Journal editorial page — rising young party stars like the Florida’s Marco Rubio and Texas’s Ted Cruz showed up on the Senate floor to express their solidarity and bask in the #StandWithRand Twitter glow. So, revealingly, did the Establishment lion Mitch McConnell, who only three years ago backed Rand Paul’s opponent in the Republican Senatorial primary in their home state of Kentucky. Such is the power amassed by the GOP’s tea-party wing ever since that McConnell now has to pander to Paul to avoid risking a primary challenge from the radicals in his own 2014 reelection bid.

Post-sequester, President Obama has reached out to Republican lawmakers, hosting a dinner last night for a dozen GOP senators, among them perennial “gang” leaders John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Beltway wisdom has it that Obama took his case to the people on sequestration and lost, and now he’s back-tracking to a pre-election strategy of trying to negotiate a “grand bargain” with Republicans. What’s Obama’s plan here? And is there any reason to think it’ll work?
Obama will never be on a ballot again, and it’s hard to imagine that a one-week fall-off in his approval ratings prompted this outreach, which also includes a White House lunch with Paul Ryan today. It’s also hard to imagine that these efforts will lead to a “grand bargain.” There were no Senate leaders at the dinner, and with the exception of Graham, the invitees are not up for reelection in 2014, thereby freeing them to pal around with this president without risking an immediate revolt by their own base. That’s hardly a representative or powerful sampling of the GOP caucus. But the dinner does throw a bone to all those Beltway pundits who are forever suggesting that Obama and his adversaries could work out a deal if only they had an alcohol-lubricated after-hours soiree, as Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill once did. Now we can see how that theory plays out when actually put to the test.  

Jeb Bush plunged into the immigration debate this week with the release of his book Immigration Wars. In it, he argues against providing undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship while advocating for a mechanism by which they could achieve legal non-citizen status. But he quickly backtracked in interviews, saying, “I have supported both — both a path to legalization or a path to citizenship.” Was the book his attempt to outflank Marco Rubio on the right for the 2016 campaign? And will his immediate reversal be judged a “for it before I was against it” moment? 
Wasn’t Jeb Bush supposed to be the “smart” Bush? It’s hard to imagine anything dumber than disowning the views expressed in your own book during the week of its publicity rollout. Bush was justly admired for being a moderate on immigration issues by GOP standards, so his move to the right in Immigration Wars certainly looks like a cynical attempt to reposition himself for a possible presidential run. Alas for him, politics moves faster than book publishing, and so now with equal cynicism Bush is racing back to his more progressive position, in line with the GOP’s post-defeat rebranding effort to prove that it really likes Latinos more than Mitt Romney did. Somehow I feel that Jeb Bush is not going to be a presidential candidate in 2016, or at least a successful one — not least because in his heart of hearts he, like Chris Christie, is just too moderate for his own party.    

Vanity Fair published excerpts from a biography of Roger Ailes yesterday in which the Fox News head disses Obama as “lazy,” Joe Biden as “dumb as an ashtray,” and Newt Gingrich as “a prick.” Ailes is a world-class showman with a shrewd understanding of image control. What’s he trying to project with these quotes? And how does it show how he’s thinking about his legacy?
We can’t judge a book before we’ve read the whole thing, but everyone knows that Ailes cooperated with the author of this biography to preempt the Ailes biography that our colleague Gabriel Sherman is now completing without Ailes’s participation. The author of this one, Zev Chafets, is best known for Rush Limbaugh: An Army of Onea sympathetic 2010 biography, also written with the subject’s cooperation. That book did nothing to halt the decline of Limbaugh’s reputation, including on the right, in the time since its publication, and if the Ailes book is similarly lacking in punch it, too, will have no effect other than telling Ailes fans what they already know. If the insults in the Vanity Fair excerpt are the best the book can offer — and excerpts of books like this usually do cherry-pick highlights — it doesn’t seem to be bursting with news. It’s all been heard many times on Fox News except for the Gingrich putdown, and it’s hardly a stop-the-presses revelation that even conservatives regard Newt as “a prick.” That said, Ailes is a fascinating figure, and for now the best account of him can be found in Joe McGinniss’s behind-the-scenes classic The Selling of the President 1968in which we meet the young Ailes taking on the seemingly impossible task of humanizing Richard Nixon for public consumption and miraculously pulling it off. 

On Monday, the veteran journalist Nate Thayer published an e-mail correspondence in which an editor at The Atlantic asked Thayer if she could re-post one of his articles with no compensation. Thayer was indignant and the post went viral. Unpaid content in the age of HuffPo is hardly new. Why do you think Thayer’s post struck a chord now? And what’s your take on the issue in general?
I really hope readers will read Thayer’s full post of his e-mail correspondence with the editor at The Atlantic because its plaintive content is the best explanation of why it went viral. An abstract issue becomes personal when we see a professional like Thayer not only be asked to republish a previously published piece without payment but to do additional work on it gratis besides. This is soul-killing to any writer or anyone who aspires to be a writer. As for the issue in general, let me quote Thayer: “I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children.” He goes on to ask how publications “can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them.” The answer: They can’t.

Frank Rich: Even Rand Can Get It Right Once