Can Rand Paul sell black voters on the Republican Party?

The Week
Paul hit some trouble when he talked about the Civil Rights Act.
.

View photo

Paul hit some trouble when he talked about the Civil Rights Act.

Paul's speech at Howard University wasn't warmly embraced, but every journey begins with a first step

On Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) spoke at the historically black Howard University, in the latest Republican attempt to repair the party's once-strong relationship with African-Americans. Nobody is arguing that Rand's performance was spotless — many reviewers trotted out the word "awkward" — but as BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray puts it, the students "didn't totally hate" Paul.

Rand wasn't at Howard to find love, though. As an early frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, he needs to do better with black voters than Mitt Romney did — Romney "lost an astounding 93 percent of the black vote" in 2012 — if he "hopes to challenge whoever the Democrats nominate," say Jake Tapper, Jason Seher, and Jessica Metzger at CNN. The Howard speech "marks the start of Paul's effort to distinguish himself from his fellow Republicans — and his own father's legacy."

SEE MORE: Men's underwear: An economic bellwether?

"As Rand Paul acknowledged in his speech, he may not be the most obvious choice to spearhead the GOP's outreach to African-Americans," says Benjy Sarlin at Talking Points Memo. Comments he made in 2010 about the Civil Rights Act pointedly came up. (Paul said at the time that he supported the landmark civil rights law's forcible desegregation of public places, but not private businesses like restaurants and hotels.) So his statement at Howard that he has "never wavered in my support for civil rights or the Civil Rights Act" was met with incredulity both inside the lecture hall and outside.

Paul also forgot, then bungled, the name of an early black U.S. senator, Edward Brooke (R-Mass.) — a Howard alumnus, no less — calling him, with some prompting, Edwin Brooks. And he insulted the students by asking them if they knew that Republicans had started the NAACP.

SEE MORE: WATCH: FBI releases video, photos of suspected Boston bombers

Seriously. You don't come to HOWARD of all places and act like these cats don't know who founded the NAACP. They live this, son.

— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisi) April 11, 2013

But "Paul possesses a monk's confidence in his ability to convert skeptics with his words," and "he makes alliances more easily than some Republicans," says David Weigel at Slate. His brand of libertarianism — the part about keeping the government out of our homes — resonates with many blacks and liberals, and he earned some rare applause by talking up his efforts to restrict long, punitive jail sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. And even if his talking about these issues didn't convince many in the Howard audience, in Paul's mind, anything is "possible for the Hayek Whisperer" — including reaching beyond those at Howard.

SEE MORE: Immigration reform: Will it go the way of gun control?

On Wednesday morning, he was talking past the audience. To a viewer at home — a Fox News viewer, maybe — it was enough that Paul was there and a bonus that he got heckled.... When he left the campus, past the students still holding the "White Supremacy" banner and conducting interviews, Paul remained the Republican most likely to reform mandatory minimums. He remained the most prominent Republican supporter of drug law reform. He wouldn't apologize for the Republican Party, or for libertarianism, or for that 2010 interview about the Civil Rights Act. [Slate]

Paul "deserves credit for appearing before a potentially hostile audience to make the case for conservative policies with which most black voters utterly disagree," says Jack White at The Root. "But he also deserves strong criticism — even derision — for pretending that there's any mystery about why most black folks are so skeptical about the GOP." Paul's argument is that black voters started abandoning the Republican Party in the 1930s, when FDR's promise of "unlimited federal assistance" trumped the GOP's "less tangible... promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets."

He left out the part that Republicans almost always leave out when they lament their lack of support from African-Americans: The racial realignment that occurred during the 1960s, when Democratic politicians like President Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy became champions for equal rights, and Republicans reinvented their party as a harbor for segregationists.... Paul has things to say that could be appealing to many black voters, especially about the need to stop sending black kids to jail for nonviolent drug offenses. But until he and the rest of the GOP are ready to fess up about their party's embrace of racism, apologize for it, and present a serious program for moving on, they're going to have a hard time attracting African-American support. [The Root]

Paul's speech "certainly didn't recruit a lot of new Republicans," says BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray. "But his openness in front of a tough crowd and receptiveness to students' questions earned him their begrudging respect."

SEE MORE: Why the Taliban is aggressively disavowing the Boston Marathon bombing

I give Paul more credit than Romney. He took questions. Shows a fighting spirit. And he actually had a legit issue--drug war, incarceration.

— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisi) April 11, 2013

His trip to Howard "wasn't perfect," and "it likely didn't turn a lot of voters," says Mary Katherine Ham at Hot Air, but Paul is playing a long game. "You don't finish a long journey by letting people mock you out of taking the first step," and "learning to talk to new audiences takes practice." Besides, Paul's actually "one of the best-suited members of the new Republican guard" for reaching out to young and minority voters: He can talk skeptically about the cops and drug laws and war "in a genuine way, without pandering."

SEE MORE: 7 clothing lines inspired by movies and TV shows

I'd bet more than a handful of students left with the impression that Paul is a basically well-intentioned guy with whom they might even agree on one issue. That's not a terrible outing.... And, Paul's outing isn't just important as outreach to minority voters. It's important as a model for outreach to an entire generation of voters under 30, a greater proportion of which are minorities than in any other age group.

Republican candidates have too often made the mistake — implicitly and explicitly, as with the 47 percent video— of sending the message that they've written off large chunks of voters. That voters who may see government as a helpful force in some areas of their lives are somehow irredeemable or disqualified as Republican voters. Paul said the opposite today, with his characteristic low-key demeanor. One late night on the Senate floor, Paul inspired fellow members of the new Republican guard, and even some of the party's veterans, to venture into bolder, new uncharted territory. Here's hoping he did it again today. [Hot Air]

View this article on TheWeek.com Get 4 Free Issues of The Week

Other stories from this section:

Like on Facebook - Follow on Twitter - Sign-up for Daily Newsletter
View Comments (571)