Much of Sen. Rand Paul’s appeal, as a politician generally and as a probable 2016 presidential candidate, stems from this idea that he’s a “different kind of Republican.” It’s an image that Paul’s people work diligently to cultivate as they play up their boss’ philosophical and policy differences with the GOP. He has a libertarian streak (that he’ll gladly abandon as circumstances warrant), and he tends to oppose foreign military intervention (except when he supports it).
One area in which Paul really tries to set himself apart from his party colleagues is minority rights. After decades of subtle and overt hostility towards the interests of minority voters, the Republican Party’s relationship with non-white segments of the population is terrible. Rand Paul is making a very public effort to court black voters and send the message that Republicans care about minorities, too. It’s an uphill climb for any Republican, and Paul has his own unique obstacles to overcome – specifically, the fact that he had a Neo-Confederate secessionist as one of his closest aides, and his past stated opposition to portions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act banning discrimination in privately owned businesses. Paul’s strategy to date for dealing with those comments has been to deny (falsely) that he ever said them and insist (falsely) that his views on the subject have always been consistent.
In an interview for Salon published this morning, Phillip Bailey asked Rand Paul how he’d explain away these two controversies to potential new supporters, and the senator came back with a brazen answer:
Well, I think that I simply point to my record. I don’t think there has been anybody who has been a bigger defender of minority rights in the Congress than myself, and that’s not saying others aren’t trying as well. But I think you can see a history and a litany of bills that I’ve put forward to not only restore voting rights, but to try to prevent people from the tragedy of losing their employability through felony convictions and other things.
Okay, let’s state up front that Sen. Paul has indeed championed minority rights issues as a member of Congress, and has deviated from the party line on those issues. He’s sponsored legislation to restore voting rights to people convicted of non-violent felonies, and he backs sentencing reform for drug-related offenses. Those are important, needed reforms and Paul, unlike most of the rest of his party, is on the right side of them.
But casting himself as Congress’ biggest defender of minority rights is an absurd and grossly self-aggrandizing statement that isn’t supported by the record he’s cultivated over half a term in the U.S. Senate. First of all, as Twitter was quick to point out, John Lewis, an actual hero of the civil rights movement, is still representing Georgia’s 5th congressional district in the House of Representatives. Until such time as Rand Paul is thrown in jail or hospitalized in the fight against racial inequality, then his claim to being Congress’ chief defender of minority rights is without merit.
As for Paul’s record: yes, he’s on the right side of some important issues, but very much on the wrong side of others. Right now there’s a nationwide Republican campaign to impose restrictive voter ID laws that are flagrantly discriminatory and will effectively disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of minority voters. Rand Paul supports these laws. But he also knows they make Republicans look bad. So his solution is to chastise Republicans for emphasizing voter ID laws because they’re bad PR and interfere with his own efforts to court minority voters. Here’s what he said on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program earlier this year:
PAUL: No I agree, there’s nothing wrong with it. To see Eric Holder you’ve got to show your drivers license to get in the building. So I don’t really object to having some rules for how we vote. I show my drivers license every time I vote in Kentucky…and I don’t feel like it is a great burden. So it’s funny that it got reported that way.
But I do mean what I said, that Republicans need to be aware that there is a group of voters that I’m trying to court and that we should be trying to court who do see it as something directed towards them. So that’s why what I’ve been trying to emphasize is not voter-ID, but trying to emphasize that I would like to give people back the right to vote if they committed a youthful non-violent crime and have served their time.
So the Rand Paul stance is to plow ahead with voter suppression tactics, but keep it on the down-low because he’s got a reputation he’s trying to cultivate. And that, in his mind, makes him Congress’ greatest defender of minority rights.