Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky broke Friday with fellow Republicans who have pushed for stricter voting laws as a way to crack down on fraud at the polls, saying that the focus on such measures alienates and insults African-Americans and hurts the party. "Everybody's gone completely crazy on this voter ID thing," Mr. Paul said in an interview. "I think it's wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it's offending people."
For all of their intra-party disputes in recent years, Republicans have been largely unified when it comes to harsh new restrictions on voting rights and voters' access to the polls. There appears, however, to be one notable exception.
The Kentucky Republican was speaking to a largely African-American audience in Memphis. His remarks come against the backdrop of Paul's national ambitions and stated agenda to reach beyond the traditional Republican constituencies -- as Adam Serwer explained well, "Rand Paul says he wants to grow the Republican Party. His real challenge is bringing the rest of the party along."
There are a few relevant angles to this. The first is that Rand Paul is an exceedingly awkward messenger for an otherwise sensible message. This is, after all, the same GOP senator who's publicly criticized the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act, who hired a neo-Confederate as one of his top aides, and who came across as pretty condescending in his speech at Howard University.
Second, Paul seems to be a recent convert to the cause. It was just last year that the senator dismissed the same concerns he now claims to take seriously. Perhaps he's learning or maybe he's playing a crass political game.
And then there's the substance.
Note that Paul didn't say voter-ID laws are discriminatory. He didn't acknowledge how unnecessary they are, or the degree to which they address a problem that doesn't actually exist. He also didn't mention how legally dubious they are.
Instead, the senator said, "I think it's wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it's offending people."
It is, to be sure, a step in the right direction -- a step few in his party have been willing to take -- and my goal is not to detract from evidence of progress, but Paul's sentiment isn't exactly going to be music in the ears of voting-rights advocates.
His reference to "too crazy" suggests the senator will be comfortable with some voter-suppression tactics, so long as his party does it in moderation, and his reference to "offending people" makes it sound as if voter-ID laws would be otherwise fine, were it not for a perception problem.
In other words, Rand Paul's step in the right direction is small, and built on the wrong motivation.