Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has the notion that his brand of anti-government libertarianism and isolationism is going to sell big in the GOP and beyond. There is so far little to no indication of this. His standing in early 2016 presidential polling is poor, generally in single digits. Within the party he is increasingly odd man out, such as on Iran sanctions. His outreach to minorities, such as the students at Howard University, comes across as pandering and condescending, in part because he assumes minorities are ignorant about the GOP. (Hence, the need for the history lesson to explain African Americans’ early attachment to the party of Lincoln.)
But let’s assume he is clueless, the charitable explanation for what too often sounds like racial and ethnic stereotyping. Politico related this conversation with the junior senator from Kentucky:
Sporting a gray suit, red tie and cowboy boots, Paul said ideas that fall into the “libertarian-slash-Republican” camp “are a bit different from what we’ve done in the past” and could expand the GOP tent. Those proposals go beyond his well-known problems with National Security Agency surveillance, which led him to file a class-action lawsuit against the agency last week. Drug policy reforms, Paul said, would particularly resonate in minority communities that have largely shut out Republicans.
And opposing indefinite detention of detainees, he said, would strike a chord with groups that historically have been persecuted.
“I think that our message … has great appeal if you are part of any kind of group that’s ever been mistreated in history,” he said. “That could be African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Japanese-Americans, all of which, at times in our history, haven’t been treated as they should be.”
Hmm. Perhaps he doesn’t realize the impossibility of emptying the cells at Gitmo, although even the Obama administration figured that one out. Maybe he is unaware that closing Gitmo and either sending the detainees back to kill Americans or to prisons in the heartland is overwhelmingly objectionable to Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. But the assumption that Jews or African Americans equate interment of terrorists under exceptionally humane circumstances with their group’s historic suffering is bizarre and a little insulting.
Artur Davis, the former Democratic Alabama congressman and now Republican, says Rand Paul is way off base. He tells Right Turn, “How many ways does the senator get this wrong? Does he know that blacks make a disproportionate contribution to the ranks of our military, and don’t belong in the same moral universe with enemy combatants? Does he appreciate that the detainees at Guantanamo are not another mistreated class of Americans? They are almost entirely would-be terrorists, al Qaeda knockoffs, and international criminals, and they ought not be linked in the same sentence with any American minority.”
Moreover, with core GOP groups including Christian conservatives, his positions on Gitmo, Iran (Would he think American Jews favor containment of Iran, a position he also has advocated?) and anti-terrorism (such as drones) sound more like former Ohio congressman (and supporter of the Department of Peace) Dennis Kucinich than Ronald Reagan. All Americans can see the butchery of Bashar al-Assad, the man Rand Paul claimed was good for Christians. And the notion that we need to “nation build at home” by spending money on Detroit, not the military, as Rand Paul suggested, is going to strike many in the center-right as a warmed-over Obamaism.
The effort to broaden the party via libertarianism is more problematic than simply Rand Paul’s ham-handedness or his eccentric foreign policy views. There is little appetite among Republican voters — let alone groups traditional at odds with the GOP — for returning to a pre-New Deal sort of government (as his budget proposals have recommended). And treating government as the enemy, as scarier than terrorists plotting to kill us is not a message that has resonance with voters who already think Republicans “don’t care about people like me.” (And saying you’re in favor of immigration reform, but voting against it is probably going to annoy the Hispanics you are trying to court with a message of openness to new Americans.)
Voters who haven’t in the past vote Republican may be receptive, as we’ve seen in enumerable gubernatorial elections and purple state senatorial campaigns, to a pro-jobs, pro-school choice message and/or a critique of the excesses of Obama’s policies, but trolling for nontraditional GOP voters on a platform of gun rights, emptying Gitmo, eliminating the Education Department, NSA paranoia, containing Iran and skepticism over civil rights legislation’s infringement on property rights is daft. There is a segment of mostly male, young and white voters who’d fancy those views — pretty much the same ones who followed his father. It is not however a formula for expanding the reach of the GOP.
It’s not surprising that a non-politician from a deep red state who, for his entire life, has been at the knee and side of Ron Paul would have a skewed view of American politics. It’s hardly a shocker that a Senate gadfly doesn’t appreciate the value of good governance. But Rand Paul may find that when tested in the caldron of presidential politics, his appeal will fizzle. He may be a more clever version of his father, but that doesn’t make him any more acceptable to a broad segment of voters.