Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul spoke at historically black Howard University last week, and it was a major event. No, he didn’t seem to win any black votes for the GOP–even his fans admit as much. But white people of the rightblogger variety were all over it, and that’s what counts.
Some of the brethren held out some hope that the speech, and the many acts of outreach with which Paul will doubtless follow up (how much does a half-hour on ASPiRE cost?), might shave some points off the Democrats’ mammoth share of the non-Caucasian vote. But most were excited that Paul was saying things they liked in an exotic location.
Paul is in most respects a doctrinaire rightwinger–he is a favorite of the remnants of the Tea Party, and even gave the official Tea Party response to the last State of the Union. He opposes abortion, pushing a “fetal personhood” bill in the Senate. And there was nothing in his speech at last year’s GOP convention that traditional Republicans couldn’t love (“Mr. President, you say the rich must pay their fair share … When you seek to punish Mr. ExxonMobil you punish the secretary who owns ExxonMobil stock,” etc.).
But as the son of Ron Paul, the senator is libertarian royalty. And he has cleverly exploited that status by emphasizing positions that excite libertarians who are not Republican without alienating libertarians who are. His widely-covered anti-drone filibuster, for example, cannily focused on domestic drone strikes, not foreign ones. Thus Paul won the approval of both the black helicopter crowd, for whom his position was sufficiently narrow, and serious civil libertarians–such as Glenn Greenwald, for whom it was too narrow–who were understandably grateful for any opposition to targeted killings. This reenergized a chunk of the Republican base, and also gave promise of luring new allies into the party, which, as the GOP’s traditional coalition partners have not been doing the electoral job of late, builds Paul’s power within the party.
Paul’s appearance at Howard was advertised as a bold outreach–an offer to black citizens, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic, of more effective representation via the Republican Party. That Paul had only a few years earlier criticized the Civil Rights Act because it didn’t allow store owners to legally discriminate against customers–not that he’s racist or anything, he just loves the free market–only made his appearance at a traditional black college that much more exciting and newsworthy.
Paul’s speech at Howard turned out to be less of a watershed and more like Mitt Romney’s at the NAACP in 2012–a kamikaze mission meant to show courage to his fellow white people. Paul even announced at the outset that “some have said that I’m either brave or crazy to be here today,” as if he were presenting himself to a kangaroo court, an effect underlined by his frequent lamentations that he had been misunderstood (“and when I think of how political enemies often twist and distort my positions … my hope is that you will hear me out, that you will see me for who I am, not the caricature sometimes presented by political opponents … Republicans are often miscast as uncaring or condemning,” etc.).
Paul told the Howard audience that the Republicans used to be the civil rights party and the Democrats used to be the Copperheads, and that the answer to the question of “How did we lose [the black] vote?” was that the Democrats offered money to black people (African-Americans “became impatient for economic emancipation,” he told them, and “the Democrats promised equalizing outcomes through unlimited federal assistance”).
After pushing school choice and an end to draconian drug laws and mandatory minimum sentences, which got some applause, Rand took a few questions and then got out. Paul is not stupid, and it is impossible to believe he thought this would draw black voters to the GOP. And rightbloggers, showing admirable attentiveness, didn’t seem to think black people were the point either.
Not all of them were so sharp, though. At the Wall Street Journal, Jason L. Riley prefaced his report with a long quote from Clarence Thomas on the trouble he had getting the Reagan administration to pay attention to the black vote. Riley interpreted this to mean that their lack of outreach was black people’s fault. “Perhaps this new crop of Republican pols has determined, 30 years after Justice Thomas was rebuffed, that the GOP will need more black votes to win elections going forward,” said Riley. But if so, “they would do well to follow Mr. Paul’s example and avoid the traditional civil rights venues (and ‘leaders’) that other Republicans have used for black outreach … blacks who are open to the GOP’s message are more likely to be found among the young people on college campuses–and in barbershops and community centers and among small business owners–than at NAACP conventions.” We eagerly await Paul’s appearance at King of Cutz.
At The Blaze, Tiffany Gabbay said the speech could be “a giant step toward Republicans winning back minorities” because it “reminded students at the historically black university of the GOP’s history as an anti-slavery party bent on abolishing racist Jim Crow laws.” She did acknowledge that, under Nixon’s Southern Strategy, “a number of racist Southern Democrats became Republican and, perhaps understandably, the GOP began losing its black members,” and that there’d been “what many argue is poor outreach in minority communities,” but listen to this: One of Paul’s freshman auditors said, “You’re sitting in a room with people who don’t support you for the most part so I do give [Paul] credit for coming.” There you go, said Gabbay: “Perhaps Paul’s recent speech at Howard is an example of one GOP member making that first step.” As Jesse Jackson once said, that’s the sunny side!
WorldNetDaily gave Paul a nice hed/subhed (“RAND PAUL TO BLACKS: BIG GOVERNMENT NOT YOUR FRIEND/Tells students at Howard GOP plan equalizes prosperity through free market”), but reporter Taylor Rose couldn’t really assert much of a victory for him (“he attempted to find sympathy with the mostly black audience by championing the issue of civil rights …”), so he turned to an opposing view–that of former National Review writer Peter Brimelow, who told him Paul’s speech was “a complete waste of time. … [Republicans] need to talk about the white working class. … you need a high white share to win, and low white share you lose. … Make an honest appeal to a white base and they will see people turn out for them.” See, WND offers both sides of the great issues.
“It wasn’t perfect,” said Mary Katherine Ham of Hot Air. “It likely didn’t turn a lot of voters.” Nonetheless, she said, “I’d bet more than a handful of students left with the impression that Paul is a basically well-intentioned guy with whom they might even agree on one issue.”
Why? Because his speech “gave a young, minority audience mostly ideologically hostile to the idea of libertarianism a new face to put on right-of-center ideas,” said Ham. And if Paul comes back to Howard wearing a fake beard and coke-bottle glasses, that’ll be yet another new face.
Ham emphasized the issues on which Paul and his auditors agreed, and added, “next time out, Paul will know to couch the civil rights issue in a different way”–because even though he was “right on facts,” Paul should remember that “when you’re introducing an idea that doesn’t jibe with what your audience has heard for decades, and is this emotional, it’s best to introduce it delicately.”
We can hardly imagine what “delicately” would mean in this context, though we got a clue from Paul’s response to a student who wanted an activist government that helped him with his student loans, which Ham highlighted: “Even though I think your education is important,” Paul explained, “and maybe you have a student loan from the government. I’m not for borrowing it from China, I’m for figuring out how we get it out of the $2.6 trillion that comes in every year …” This is curious as, one, Paul’s expressions of concern with student loans heretofore have mainly been about “demagoguery” by Democrats on the subject, and two, we can’t imagine what a libertarian government student loan program would look like — probably market value, and if you can’t pay the freight, talk to the invisible hand. But he showed sympathy, and that’s what’s important.
More forthrightly, The Ulsterman Report portrayed the exchange with that student thus: Paul “gently swipe[d] aside the silly ‘I want more’ mantra voiced by this college freshman.”
The bigger conservative voices didn’t see any need to sugarcoat it. “He probably didn’t persuade many that Republican policies would serve African-Americans better than Democratic ones,” editorialized the New York Post. “But the Kentucky Republican made the argument and made it on principle.” And that’s what’s important–he showed them no fear! “What do you mean the Republicans have a long way to go?” groused Rush Limbaugh. “I know why he said it, but they don’t have a long way to go. To me the onus is on black people to get it straight.” “No number of speeches is likely to break the Democrats’ lock on African Americans, unfortunately,” said Matt Purple at the American Spectator. “Still, it’s a good gesture on Paul’s part and one that further helps him set the table for a 2014 run.”
National Review‘s Jonah Golberg prefaced his Paul remarks with a meditation on “Accidental Racist,” a peculiar Brad Paisley tune in which the country star explained that just because he was wearing the Confederate flag in public didn’t mean the descendants of slaves had to be upset about it, while LL Cool J rapped counterpoint.
The tune caught a lot of attention last week, much of it derisive, and it was even parodied over the weekend on Saturday Night Live. But Paisley, said Goldberg, was “striving for something important” with his “ballad about a white Southerner trying to reconcile his Southern pride and his rejection of racism”–that is, he was trying to “start a conversation,” which liberals, in Goldberg’s imagining, are always claiming they want on race. Well, here was a respected commentator offering his point of view, and yet music fans (liberals, probably, since only liberals listen to country/rap fusion) were criticizing it. This showed, said Goldberg, that “letting the South off the hook for its racial sins is not something that interests many of Paisley’s critics.” See? You try to talk sense to these people through a song on the Internet, and they won’t take you seriously.
This, Goldberg continued, was exactly what Paul was doing at Howard. Promoting his career with a peculiar one-off, you mean? No: “Both Paul and Paisley are doing exactly what liberal politicians, civil-rights activists and editorial boards have been demanding for decades,” Goldberg said. “Paisley contributed his best effort for a ‘frank dialogue.’ Paul reached out to minorities, engaged in the conversation and didn’t take blacks for granted.”
But “no one should be shocked that neither effort settled anything,” Goldberg concluded. “That’s how conversations are supposed to work, but not, apparently, the kinds of conversations the conversation-starters have in mind.” There’s just no point in talking, or rapping, or singing to these people, then, except to talk afterwards about how hard you tried.
In a HuffPost roundtable, libertarians didn’t much address the effect of the speech on black folks–“his speeches are sometimes a little clunky,” said Jon Ward; he “should have owned up to the Southern Strategy,” said Radley Balko, before explaining that it was an “expansive reading of the Commerce Clause” that troubled Paul about the Civil Rights Act, not racism. But they agreed that Paul speech showed libertarianism was the wave of the future.
In fact, the moderator asserted that “the majority of the country is libertarian”–which makes the poor showing of Libertarian Presidential candidate Gary Johnson in 2012 especially surprising; has anyone examined the role of voter fraud on that? Matt Welch brought up the “spectrum-altering moment” of Paul’s drone speech, and said that on issues like the drug war “American political opinion has just never really been represented by politicians,” but “there’s going to be people who are going to discover bravery pretty soon.” “He’s more libertarian on civil liberties issues than most Democrats in Congress, who are supposed to be civil libertarians on those issues,” said Balko, “that’s huge.”
We of course have had libertarian-flavored conservatism in the White House before, in the Reagan Administration, which began the landslide of regulatory reversals that eventually buried the U.S. economy. But if the Paulites are betting that Americans have forgotten Lee Atwater, they’re probably also betting that they’ve forgotten that, too.
By the way, we don’t normally mention it, but for an added dimension you really should read the comments to these rightblogger posts to get a sense of what their readers, who have less motivation to be polite, think about racial issues. Sample from the Washington Examiner: “The audience is simply too racist and too ignorant to receive the message. Howard University is mainly in the business of turning out bigots. You would think given the absolute devastation that Obama has wrought in the black community with his economic illiteracy,” etc. That’s the crew Paul’s speech is really meant for, and they seem to have gotten the message loud and clear.