Earlier this month, Rand Paul told a Kentucky crowd, "You'll find nobody in Congress doing more for minority rights than me right now — Republican or Democrat."
It's part of a pitch — both political and philosophical — that the senator has been making to minority voters around the country for the past year.
Speaking at the National Urban League's annual conference in Cincinnati on Friday, Paul again pushed his agenda for minority rights. There are four planks to Paul's platform: sentencing reform, voting rights, school choice, and something he calls Economic Freedom Zones.
Another Republican lawmaker tried to further Republicans' poverty agenda with talk of enterprise zones and school vouchers — more than 20 years ago. In 1993, Jack Kemp, the original compassionate conservative, made a very similar case to the one that GOP lawmakers like Paul and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin are making today.
The idea behind Paul's Free Enterprise Zones, as I've written about before, is to radically lower taxes in areas that have 1.5 times the national unemployment rate, which now stands at roughly 9 percent. Detroit's unemployment rate is 14.5 percent.
"I think it could transform the poverty problem in America," Paul told the crowd Friday morning.
To combat sentencing disparities, an unlikely duo of freshman senators has emerged: Paul and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. Together, they are pushing the Redeem Act, which would help nonviolent felons seal their criminal records, thereby helping them later in the job market. Paul also said he is introducing legislation Friday that will eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack- and powder-cocaine offenses.
"Frankly, it's easier to arrest and convict poor kids in an urban environment," Paul said. "As a Christian I believe in redemption, and I believe in second chances."
In Paul's home state of Kentucky, across the river from the Urban League conference, ex-felons are not allowed to vote. In his speech, Paul called it "the biggest impediment to voting in our country."
Aside from his policy pitches, there was also a philosophical sell in Paul's speech — that you should not be judged "by the color of your skin or the shade of your ideology."
Put less elegantly, Paul's idea is that small-government conservatives face the same kind of discrimination as racial minorities in America. They're in the same boat, fighting against the oppressive majority, which in Republicans' case is big government.
"Those who have known injustice should be at the vanguard to protect our civil liberties," Paul told the crowd. His example: The FBI illegally tapped Martin Luther King Jr.'s phone. Now, the National Security Agency is essentially tapping everyone's phones.
It's a tough sell, because the advancement of minority rights has so often required government intervention. And it's been hard for Paul to escape criticism for past remarks on racial issues. In his speech, Paul touted his support of the Civil Rights Act.
But in a 2010 interview, Paul took issue with the section of the act that prohibited private-business owners from discriminating on the basis of race. "I think it's a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant," Paul said at the time. "But, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership."
As Adam Serwer wrote in Mother Jones last year, that section of the Civil Rights Act "completely reshaped American society."
Soon after that 2010 interview, Paul reversed his stance. But that fact — that restrictions had to be put on businesses to make life somewhat less hellish for American minorities — is at the root of Paul's cognitive dissonance.
Paul wants to support the free market while also supporting the socially disadvantaged. But when those two objectives work against each other, his message gets muddled.