Sen. Rand Paul has been getting lots of credit lately for his efforts to widen the GOP’s reach beyond its older white Christian base, speaking to the National Urban League and other African-American groups and even warning his party not to go “crazy” passing voter ID laws (though he later said he supported them).
But Paul hit some turbulence yesterday in Iowa, at a fundraiser for far-right immigration-reform foe Rep. Steve King. A young woman approached King and Paul and shook their hands, as a smiling Paul greeted her, then went back to enjoying a hamburger. But when she identified herself as a "dreamer," things got weird. Paul, who was literally in the middle of a bite of his burger, seemed to almost cough it up – then he dropped it, and bolted from the table with an aide.
It’s probably on an endless loop in Sen. Ted Cruz’s office today. You might even see it in Cruz ads if the two men face off for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Say what you will about the combative extremist Cruz: It’s hard to imagine him cutting and running in a similar situation.
Paul ran away even before the conflict between King and dreamer Erika Andiola began; she had merely identified herself as a dreamer. Why was the Kentucky senator so panic-stricken? Probably because he has repeatedly tried to have it both ways on immigration reform.
He voted against the bipartisan Senate bill last year, but he has subsequently tried to depict himself as a champion of reform, even after Rep. Eric Cantor’s surprise primary defeat in June, which was attributed to his opponent’s shrill anti-reform stance. “I say everywhere I go that I am for immigration reform,” he told reporters after Cantor’s loss.
Everywhere, that is, except for Steve King fundraisers.
Paul’s Iowa panic suggests that either he doesn’t understand how difficult it is to square the GOP’s policy positions with outreach to non-white groups, or that he thinks he can get away with ducking the conflict. Of course anyone who cares about either reaching Latino voters, or developing a sane immigration policy, wouldn’t be appearing with King in the first place. King’s reflexive xenophobia and casual racism are well known. He’s the one who went on about Latino immigrants having “calves the size of cantaloupes” as a result of being drug mules, for instance.
On the other hand, Paul knows King is now in his party’s mainstream when it comes to immigration policy. Boasting about his role in blowing up House Speaker John Boehner’s compromise border-crisis bill, King told Roll Call: “The changes brought into this are ones I’ve developed and advocated for over the past two years. It’s like I ordered it off the menu.”
I can’t get past the feeling that Paul is the pampered scion of a right-wing family who grew up having his every word indulged and treated like wisdom. On some level he's still Randy Paul, son of Ron. He’s not stupid, but he thinks the rest of us are. He seems to believe no one else has been smart enough to smile and show up at events hosted by groups traditionally hostile to Republicans, and that’s what it’s going to take to win their votes.
To be fair, he's gotten better at it. He no longer lectures black groups on the fact that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican or that Republicans were among the founders of the NAACP. He no longer acts like it’s simply African-Americans’ ignorance of the Republican Party’s grand history that accounts for their skepticism of it. And when it comes to criminal justice reform, Paul deserves credit for joining with Booker to do the right thing.
But a guy who boasts “I say everywhere I go that I am for immigration reform” can’t get away with coughing up his burger and running for the exit when an immigration-reform advocate approaches him. That's not exactly what his fans mean when they say, "Run, Rand, run!" Rand Paul really isn't ready for national politics, and it’s only another sign of the Republican Party’s weakness that he’s widely considered a 2016 front-runner.