Rand Paul says he wants to grow the Republican Party. His real challenge is bringing the rest of the party along.
"We have to have a bigger party, a more inclusive party, and when we do we're going to be the dominant party again, but if we do the same thing we've always done, and say hey, we're going after the same people, we're going to get the same result and that's not been good for us in presidential elections," the Kentucky senator told Fox News on Friday, before he was set to speak to the Republican National Committee and meet with the Coalition of African American Pastors. "We've tried 50 years of the Democrats passing out money and it hasn't worked."
Although he's stumbled at times, as with a condescending 2012 speech at Howard University and his hiring of an aide with Neo-Confederate sympathies, Paul has admirably continued to make a pitch for his party to nonwhite voters. He's spoken eloquently about the disproportionate impact of the drug war and felony disenfranchisement laws on minorities, and even flirted with telling fellow Republicans to call off the war on voting. On those matters, Paul comes across as sincere and compassionate.
Those issues have the potential to resonate because disenfranchisement and the criminal justice system have historically been among the preferred tools of state-backed racism. In the aftermath of Reconstruction, southern states used selectively enforced felonies to institute a system of near-slavery. Across the country, felony disenfranchisement laws were passed in order to limit the political power of black voters.
Paul is clearly aware of this history -- he's told audiences to read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, which outlines the historical links between the segregation and mass incarceration.
In an interview with The New York Times Friday, Paul spoke out against the Republican Party's push for restrictive voter ID laws. "“Everybody’s gone completely crazy on this voter ID thing,” he told the Times' Jeremy Peters. “I think it’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it’s offending people.”
Some might argue Paul is an imperfect messenger. Paul's rapid political rise owes a great deal to his father Ron Paul's following, but the elder Paul lost any appeal he might have had to minority voters with his racist associations. Senator Paul has also unconvincingly walked back his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which barred discrimination on the basis of race in businesses of public accommodation.
Yet it's not Senator Paul’s associations with the “Southern Avenger” or his father that pose the greatest obstacle to his outreach efforts. It’s his association with the Republican Party.
Black voters watched as Republican leaders refused to tamp down the insane conspiracies about where Barack Obama was born, an obsession that culminated in the president having to show the entire country his papers. Listeners to right-wing talk radio heard Obama's championing of a long-term Democratic priority, universal health care coverage, as "reparations" or the product of "Kenyan anti-colonialism." In state after state, Republican controlled legislators have instituted restrictions on voting, with euphemisms that leave little doubt as to who is to be kept from the polls.
The 2012 Republican nominee for president chalked up his loss to government "gifts" to young and minority voters. In the next weeks and months, they'll watch as the right fringe of the party seeks use the latest Republican investigation into Benghazi to lay the groundwork for the impeachment of the first black president. Paul's attention to racial disparties is an anomaly among Republicans, the vast majority of whom believe blacks receive equal treatment in the criminal justice system, see the government as having paid too much attention to problems facing blacks, and think discrimination against whites is as big an issue as discrimination against blacks.
Even without all that, most black voters don't see a contradiction between self-reliance and government assistance. A 2012 poll from the NAACP found that while 80% of black voters believed that "success in this country depends on self-reliance and determination," around nine out of 10 still believed in a federal government role in housing, education, job creation and healthcare. Paul may see the Democratic Party's approach to such issues as simply "passing out money," but many of the 16 million low-income people of color being denied health insurance because of Republican-controlled states blocking the expansion of Medicaid likely feel differently. Paul's "economic freedom zones," essentially tax cuts for particular areas, have bipartisan support but data suggests they aren't particularly effective. Paul's blend of conservatism and libertarianism would be a hard sell, even without the baggage of the last few years.
Paul's pitch has often shrewdly focused on those areas in which the state has been a burden to minorities -- Paul Ryan is never going to convince most black voters that the best way to fight poverty is by gutting food stamps. With his positions on voting rights and criminal justice, Paul might be able to persuade more black voters that he is not indifferent or hostile to black concerns. But he'll have a much harder time doing that for the rest of the Republican Party, which has spent the Obama years setting fire to the foundation of any bridge it might hope to build.