Rand Paul’s Audacious Outreach

He wants to change the way Republicans court black voters. But first he has to sell his party on the new approach.

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks at the 2014 National Urban League Conference July 25, 2014  in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Paul was expected to speak about education and criminal justice. 
National Journal
Add to Briefcase
Ronald Brownstein
Aug. 1, 2014, 1 a.m.

Sen. Rand Paul, a likely 2016 Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial con­tender, is do­ing something new, and even po­ten­tially bound­ary-break­ing, in his out­reach to Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans.

(Jay LaPrete/Getty Im­ages)Paul’s in­nov­a­tion isn’t his clogged cal­en­dar of ap­pear­ances be­fore black groups like the Na­tion­al Urb­an League, where he spoke last week. Ever since black voters de­cis­ively shif­ted their al­le­gi­ance to Demo­crats after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, there have al­ways been some GOP lead­ers — from George Rom­ney and Nel­son Rock­e­feller through Jack Kemp (the most pas­sion­ate ad­voc­ate) and George W. Bush — who tried to woo them back.

What’s new is the way Paul is court­ing Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. He has moved bey­ond the eco­nom­ic ar­gu­ments that anchored those pre­vi­ous out­reach ef­forts to em­brace crim­in­al-justice re­form with a pas­sion un­pre­ced­en­ted in mod­ern Re­pub­lic­an polit­ics. Few Demo­crats, in fact, have matched the fer­vor of Paul’s case against drug laws that have dis­pro­por­tion­ately in­car­cer­ated minor­ity men. While re­form isn’t im­min­ent, he could be help­ing to clear the space that will ul­ti­mately pro­duce it. “We haven’t really seen a Re­pub­lic­an, and I can’t think of many Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors, who [has] been this out front in try­ing to re­form the crim­in­al-justice sys­tem,” says Jeremy Haile, fed­er­al ad­vocacy coun­sel for The Sen­ten­cing Pro­ject, a group that ad­voc­ates for re­think­ing sen­ten­cing rules.

Re­pub­lic­an out­reach to Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans has long re­volved around the ar­gu­ment that con­ser­vat­ive eco­nom­ic policies would al­le­vi­ate poverty more ef­fect­ively than lib­er­al so­cial pro­grams. This tra­di­tion is spik­ing again, with pos­sible 2016 GOP hope­fuls Rep. Paul Ry­an and Sen. Marco Ru­bio of­fer­ing plans to com­bat poverty and pro­mote up­ward mo­bil­ity by cut­ting taxes and re­trench­ing Wash­ing­ton’s role (for in­stance, by con­sol­id­at­ing fed­er­al an­ti­poverty pro­grams in­to mega-block grants for states, as Ry­an pro­posed last week). Paul has joined that sweepstakes by pro­pos­ing Kemp-like “Eco­nom­ic Free­dom Zones” that would slash taxes and en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tions to pro­mote private in­vest­ment in low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods.

But as Vir­gin­ia Com­mon­wealth Uni­versity his­tor­i­an Timothy Thurber, au­thor of Re­pub­lic­ans and Race, points out, the voices ur­ging great­er GOP minor­ity out­reach have nev­er suc­ceeded in es­tab­lish­ing such policies as a cent­ral party pri­or­ity. And at­tempts to con­vince Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans that they will be­ne­fit from shrink­ing Wash­ing­ton, Thurber notes, have al­ways splintered against the hard real­ity that, at least since the civil-rights era, blacks “have looked more fa­vor­ably on the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment than oth­er seg­ments of Amer­ic­an so­ci­ety.” The min­im­al re­turn on these Re­pub­lic­an ef­forts is meas­ured in the fail­ure of any GOP pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate since 1976 to win more than 12 per­cent of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an votes.

Paul is car­ry­ing some heavy bag­gage in his ef­fort to im­prove on that. His liber­tari­an lean­ings lead him to res­ist fed­er­al edu­ca­tion­al and health care pro­grams that Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans strongly sup­port, and even promp­ted him to pub­licly ques­tion the Civil Rights Act’s pro­vi­sions ban­ning private busi­nesses from dis­crim­in­at­ing based on race. (He now says he would have voted for the law.) “There’s no sym­pathy among Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans for [his] kind of liber­tari­an philo­sophy,” says Dav­id Bos­it­is, a long­time ana­lyst of black polit­ics.

But sen­ten­cing re­form looms as the big ex­cep­tion, where liber­tari­an con­cerns about en­croach­ing gov­ern­ment over­lap with Afric­an-Amer­ic­an dis­may over crim­in­al-justice policies (par­tic­u­larly for non­vi­ol­ent drug crimes) that have im­prisoned le­gions of young black men. “Our pris­ons are burst­ing with young men of col­or and our com­munit­ies are full of broken fam­il­ies,” Paul said in last week’s Urb­an League speech. “I won’t sit idly by and watch our crim­in­al-justice sys­tem con­tin­ue to con­sume, con­fine, and define our young men.”

Paul has walked his talk by co­spon­sor­ing le­gis­la­tion with Demo­crats, in­clud­ing Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Patrick Leahy and Sen. Cory Book­er of New Jer­sey to re­duce man­dat­ory min­im­um sen­tences for non­vi­ol­ent drug of­fend­ers; re­store vot­ing rights and ac­cess to wel­fare and food-stamp be­ne­fits for more former pris­on­ers; and re­form the ju­ven­ile-justice sys­tem. That agenda might not pre­cip­it­ate an im­me­di­ate GOP elect­or­al break­through with Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, but it’s ser­i­ous enough to provide the party its best op­por­tun­ity since Kemp to en­gage that com­munity.

By scram­bling the usu­al party align­ment, Paul also has the po­ten­tial to re­shape the sen­ten­cing de­bate, much as Bill Clin­ton did with wel­fare re­form. The ques­tion is wheth­er Paul, as Clin­ton did, can con­vince his party to join him. Though fall­ing crime rates and shift­ing at­ti­tudes about drugs have cre­ated an open­ing for a new ap­proach, today the GOP dy­nam­ics on crim­in­al-justice re­form closely re­semble the party’s de­bate on im­mig­ra­tion. On each front, a van­guard of Sen­ate lead­ers and some po­ten­tial 2016 con­tenders are back­ing new ap­proaches (Ry­an, tellingly, last week also urged crim­in­al-justice re­form). But while the push to re­con­sider mass in­car­cer­a­tion hasn’t ant­ag­on­ized the Right nearly as much as has im­mig­ra­tion re­form, most con­gres­sion­al con­ser­vat­ives, es­pe­cially in the House, have shown little in­terest in ad­van­cing either is­sue. Be­fore Paul can con­vert Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans around crim­in­al-justice is­sues, he may first need to prove he can per­suade his own party to re­as­sess its views.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.