Rand Paul’s Compassionate Conservatism

The spirit of Jack Kemp is alive and well in today’s GOP.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, leaves a Republican Senate caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol September 30, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Emma Roller
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Emma Roller
April 23, 2014, 1 a.m.

Sen. Rand Paul is tak­ing full ad­vant­age of Con­gress’s re­cess with a tour of speak­ing en­gage­ments in Real Amer­ica. But more im­port­antly, he used the time away from Wash­ing­ton to cul­tiv­ate a de­cidedly dif­fer­ent im­age: not the liber­tari­an spark plug most people think of when they think of Rand Paul, but an old-fash­ioned, is­sues-ori­ented com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vat­ive.

Speak­ing at Josephin­um Academy, a Cath­ol­ic girls’ high school in Chica­go, Paul talked to par­ents and stu­dents about pub­lic-school al­tern­at­ives and sup­por­ted the right for re­li­gious schools like Josephin­um to re­ceive fed­er­al money. School vouch­ers and charter schools have long been con­ser­vat­ives’ work­around to push against the pub­lic edu­ca­tion sys­tem without seem­ing like they were pri­cing out low-in­come stu­dents.

He said schools should re­ward ex­cep­tion­al teach­ers the same way we re­ward pro­fes­sion­al ath­letes — with salary hikes tied to their per­form­ance. “In Wash­ing­ton, no one knows if you’re a good teach­er or a bad teach­er,” Paul said. “I’d make teach­ers like pro­fes­sion­al ath­letes. They would get more and more money.”

He also worked to make clear that he wants to em­power pub­lic edu­cat­ors, rather than dis­en­fran­chising them. “This isn’t ideo­logues versus the pub­lic school teach­ers’ uni­ons,” Paul told the as­sembled stu­dents, par­ents, and teach­ers. “It’s choice versus co­er­cion.”

At the event, school-choice ad­voc­ates em­phas­ized the need to take an “all-of-the-above” ap­proach to edu­ca­tion that in­cludes pub­lic, private, charter, and on­line schools. Charter schools are pub­licly fun­ded but op­er­ate in­de­pend­ently, and they don’t have to meet the same edu­ca­tion re­quire­ments that tra­di­tion­al pub­lic schools do.

Schools like Josephin­um are seen as ideal ex­amples for the school-choice move­ment. Mi­chael Dougherty, Josephin­um’s pres­id­ent, touted the school’s 100 per­cent col­lege ac­cept­ance rate. And its stu­dents come from all over the Chica­go area. Last year, the Chica­go Tribune pro­filed Jailyn Baker, a Josephin­um stu­dent whose com­mute to school every day takes one and a half hours, each way.

Since start­ing his first term in the Sen­ate, Paul has made a point to travel around the coun­try speak­ing to urb­an com­munit­ies strug­gling with poverty — not ex­actly a friendly set­ting for Re­pub­lic­an politi­cians.

Some have said that pro­mot­ing school choice and urb­an re­vital­iz­a­tion is part of Paul’s grand plan to wel­come minor­ity voters in­to the GOP’s fold. As Bloomberg notes, Black and His­pan­ic voters are the fast­est-grow­ing seg­ment of the elect­or­ate, and as such are a valu­able demo­graph­ic for Re­pub­lic­ans to pur­sue.

Paul has pro­posed policies that would spe­cific­ally af­fect urb­an, minor­ity com­munit­ies. Along with charter schools, he’s pro­posed cre­at­ing “eco­nom­ic free­dom zones” — areas with­in a city where taxes are rad­ic­ally lowered to en­cour­age busi­ness growth. Back in Decem­ber, Paul traveled to De­troit to open Michigan’s GOP of­fice there and to pro­mote the idea of “free­dom zones” in strug­gling cit­ies.

Rep. Jack Kemp — the ori­gin­al com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vat­ive — first pro­posed such zones as a way to lift city dwell­ers out of poverty. Since then, Pres­id­ent Obama has pro­posed a sim­il­ar plan, rebranded as Prom­ise Zones. Un­for­tu­nately, even Kemp’s former eco­nom­ist has said en­ter­prise zones don’t work in prac­tice, and oth­er eco­nom­ists have chal­lenged the idea that rad­ic­ally lower­ing taxes will spur eco­nom­ic activ­ity and help the well-be­ing of res­id­ents in that area.

The ghost of Jack Kemp con­tin­ues to show up at speak­ing en­gage­ments by Re­pub­lic­ans like Paul and Rep. Paul Ry­an, who worked as a speech­writer for Kemp and has called him his role mod­el.

But there’s a reas­on Kemp is not as well known for his ef­fect on so­cial policies as much as, say, Rep. John Lewis.

A 1993 New York Times Magazine story titled “How Jack Kemp Lost the War on Poverty” chron­icled how Kemp and his co­hort’s com­pas­sion­ate-con­ser­vat­ive philo­sophy only took them so far. When pressed on their so­cial policy agenda, they would stick to their nar­row plat­form — en­ter­prise zones, tax cred­its, and school vouch­ers. Sound fa­mil­i­ar?

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