Rand Paul’s Pitch to Black Voters

Can small-government conservatives find common ground with the socially disadvantaged?

National Journal
Emma Roller
July 25, 2014, 6:39 a.m.

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.

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