Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) (James Crisp/Associated Press) Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) (James Crisp/Associated Press)

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) delivered an important and intriguing speech at Howard University as part of his determined effort to expand the reach of the GOP and take his message everywhere.

His remarks, as prepared for delivery, highlighted the best and the worst aspects of his thinking, and they left some question marks.

First, he was on firm ground in acknowledging the Republicans’ failure to connect with African Americans. “How did the party that elected the first black U.S. senator, the party that elected the first 20 African American congressmen, become a party that now loses 95 percent of the black vote? How did the Republican Party, the party of the Great Emancipator, lose the trust and faith of an entire race?” He bracketed that question by reminding his audience of the long and storied involvement of Republicans in emancipation and civil rights in his own state of Kentucky. And he posited an answer: “During the Great Depression … African Americans understood that Republicans championed citizenship and voting rights, but they became impatient for economic emancipation.” He then explained the contrasting visions of the two parties, and, in doing so, made the case for conservatism as a more effective approach to fighting poverty and increasing upward mobility:

African Americans languished below white Americans in every measure of economic success and the Depression was especially harsh for those at the lowest rung of poverty.

The Democrats promised equalizing outcomes through unlimited federal assistance while Republicans offered something that seemed less tangible: the promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets.

Now, Republicans face a daunting task. Several generations of black voters have never voted Republican and are not very open to even considering the option.

Democrats still promise unlimited federal assistance and Republicans promise free markets, low taxes and less regulations that we believe will create more jobs.

His speech could have used some example of how the Democrats’ liberal welfare state works against the interests of African Americans (e.g. Davis Bacon union protection laws that were designed to and result in limiting African American government contractors), but he did make an impassioned plea for school choice. (“I defy anyone to watch ‘Waiting for Superman‘ and honestly argue against school choice,” he said with gutsy reference to the film about Michelle Rhee, who tangled with D.C.’s African American politicians.) Less effective was his shorthand defense of low taxes other than to say raising taxes doesn’t work. (“Using taxes to punish the rich, in reality, punishes everyone because we are all interconnected. High taxes and excessive regulation and massive debt are not working.”) President Obama just raised taxes, so a diagnosis of why the economic recovery is so feeble would have been helpful, especially in contrast to the Reagan recovery.

The most interesting part of the speech was his widely anticipated defense of drug law reform. “I am working with Democratic senators to make sure that kids who make bad decisions, such as non-violent possession of drugs, are not imprisoned for lengthy sentences. I am working to make sure that first-time offenders are put into counseling and not imprisoned with hardened criminals. We should not take away anyone’s future over one mistake.” He described two young men, one white and privileged and the other mixed race and modest in income, who could have had their lives ruined by a drug arrest. He concluded with a kicker: “Instead, they both went on to become presidents of the United States. But for the grace of God, it could have turned out much differently.”

He then explained his opposition to mandatory minimum sentences:

Our federal mandatory minimum sentences are simply heavy-handed and arbitrary. They can affect anyone at any time, though they disproportionately affect those without the means to fight them. We should stand and loudly proclaim enough is enough. We should not have laws that ruin the lives of young men and women who have committed no violence. That’s why I have introduced a bill to repeal federal mandatory minimum sentences. We should not have drug laws or a court system that disproportionately punishes the black community.

On the downside, he included a gratuitous and ill-conceived plug for his foreign policy notions. “Some Republicans, let’s call them the moss-covered variety, mistake war for defense. They forget that Reagan argued for peace through strength, not war through strength. The old guard argues for arms for Gaddafi and then the following year for boots on the ground to defeat Gaddafi. I want you to know that all Republicans do not clamor for war, that many Republicans believe in a strong national defense that serves to preserve the peace.” Calling his fellow conservatives war-mongers is no way to earn the respect of his fellow citizens. It smacked of easy pandering to voters who deserve a more thoughtful foreign policy critique. If he did not have the time or space to devote to the subject, he should have left it out.

Paul’s speeches sometimes can be a bit choppy and disjointed as he leaps from idea to idea. Consider this passage:

Toni Morrison said, “If there is a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I can recite books that have been written, or I can plunge into the arena and stumble and maybe fall but at least I will have striven. What I am about is a philosophy that leaves YOU to fill in the blanks. I am not black. I am not Latino. I am not Asian American. I am like many Americans, not definably of any one origin.

Huh? Is he simply trying to score points by dropping Toni Morrison’s name?

Also ineffective was his almost contriteness for speaking out during his campaign against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On one hand he seemed to apologize, “And when I am contrite and willing to accept whatever rebuke it is deemed I deserve, I think of Toni Morrison of Howard University.” On the other hand, he seemed to argue that he never said what he did and then reiterated his suspicion about federal intervention: “No Republican questions or disputes civil rights. I have never wavered in my support for civil rights or the Civil Rights Act. The dispute, if there is one, has always been about how much of the remedy should come under federal or state or private purview.” I’m not sure how to reconcile all that.

It was a nervy effort on his part, and a sincere one, I think, to explain his views to an audience not enamored of his party or philosophy. He should do more of it, and in more concrete terms, to persuade and explain how his philosophy works and why liberalism doesn’t.

He is a force to be reckoned with; liberals and conservatives ignore him at their own risk. If nothing else, he demonstrated that a forceful reiteration of history can illuminate the Republican Party and that conservatism deserves a fair hearing. That’s more than 90 percent of Republicans have done.