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Rand Paul wants less GOP rhetoric on voting restrictions

The Kentucky Republican is perfectly comfortable with voter-suppression schemes. He just doesn't want his party to talk about them.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) listens during a hearing on Capitol Hill, Sept. 9, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) listens during a hearing on Capitol Hill, Sept. 9, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
More so than any other national Republican figure, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wants to be seen as the GOP's voting-rights champion. While his Republican brethren nationwide impose harsh and unnecessary voting restrictions, as part of a campaign unlikely anything seen in the United States since Jim Crow, the Kentucky Republican routinely tells audiences, "Why don't we be the party that's for people voting, for voting rights?"
On the surface, it all sounds quite refreshing. And with this in mind, Chuck Todd asked the senator about the issue on "Meet the Press" yesterday.

Paul, a likely 2016 presidential contender, said that one step towards that goal is deemphasizing voter ID as a campaign issue, although he said he still supports requiring identification at the polls. "It doesn't mean that I think it's unreasonable, I just think it's a dumb idea for Republicans to emphasize this and say 'this is how we are going to win the elections," he said.

The senator made similar comments on "Face the Nation," telling Bob Schieffer, "I'm not really opposed to [voter ID laws]. I am opposed to it as a campaign theme."
I'll give Paul credit for creativity. Voting-rights advocates believe forcing Americans to show documentation they never before had to produce, just to cast a ballot in their own democracy, is outrageous. Proponents of voter-suppression techniques see these policies as beneficial to Republicans, while pointing to largely imaginary "voter fraud."
The junior Republican senator from Kentucky, however, thinks he's found Door #3: voter-ID laws are reasonable, he says, but his party shouldn't "emphasize" the issue while talking about elections.
The problem, of course, is that Paul's approach is a substantive mess.
The way the GOP senator sees it, disenfranchising voters -- folks who tend to be lower income and from minority communities -- is fine. Republicans just shouldn't talk about it too much.
Dear disenfranchised Americans: I have good news and bad news. The bad news, a prominent Republican has decided you still shouldn't be allowed to cast a ballot. The good news, he's also decided it's unpleasant to "emphasize" their opposition to your voting rights.
If rhetoric mattered more than policy, Rand Paul's posture would represent real progress. But for those trying to overcome indefensible voting restrictions, created by Republicans for the most brazen and undemocratic of reasons, the senator's interest in a tonal shift is literally meaningless.
What's especially striking about this is how little Paul has learned about this issue. Back in May, the Kentuckian told a largely African-American audience that it's "wrong for Republicans to go too crazy" on voter-ID laws. When the right complained, Paul backed off a bit, saying he never actually "came out against voter-ID laws."
Just a few days later, Paul ran to Fox News to declare his support for voter-ID laws -- though he added that his party shouldn't "be tone deaf" while suppressing voting rights.
Let's make this plain: other than Beltway pundits, no one much cares about a party's rhetorical emphasis. What matters is what policymakers actually do and how their agendas affect people. Either Rand Paul approves of disenfranchising Americans or he doesn't. When Republicans stand between voters and the ballot box, the problem is not one of "tone."