In response to the tragic killing of Michael Brown in Missouri, the violence afterward and the heavy-handed tactics with the press, how did politicians react?
On this one — don’t faint — I think the president got it mostly right. He expressed sympathy but did not identify with the victim as a show of racial solidarity, as he did when he said that if he had a son he would have looked like Trayvon Martin. He called for calm and defended the press’s First Amendment rights. Lastly, without prejudging the incident he called for a federal investigation to see if there was a civil rights violation. He made clear an attack on the police is never justified. I’m not sure what else he could have said differently or left out that would have been better.
Interestingly, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) also sounded restrained, a quality for which he is not usually commended. Like the president, he stood up for the First Amendment, expressed sympathy and urged calm.
As in war, the first reports of these incidents are often wrong. TV pundits can mouth off but elected officials have a responsibility to exercise restraint and reserve judgment.
But on issue like this we also see the stark difference between conservatives and libertarians.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) issued an over-the-top denunciation of the criminal justice system as racist and condemned excessive funding for police forces. Somehow this is all the fault of too much federal government: “There is a systemic problem with today’s law enforcement. Not surprisingly, big government has been at the heart of the problem. Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies — where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement.” He continued, complaining that police are over-armed:
When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury — national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture — we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.
Given these developments, it is almost impossible for many Americans not to feel like their government is targeting them. Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them. . . . The militarization of our law enforcement is due to an unprecedented expansion of government power in this realm. It is one thing for federal officials to work in conjunction with local authorities to reduce or solve crime. It is quite another for them to subsidize it.
The idea that criminals can get all the weapons they want but police cannot will strike many Republicans as bizarre. Moreover, using a tragedy not having anything to do with drug legalization to hawk his libertarian spiel on drugs seems at best a stretch and at worst insensitive opportunism. Most voters, certainly conservatives, don’t believe Michael Brown died because pot is illegal or because Missouri gets support from the feds for law enforcement. And they certainly don’t buy that “targeting” — which implies intent — of minorities is the norm. (The fact that federal authorities provide training or defensive equipment to minimize use of violence doesn’t seem to factor into his rant.) Moreover, the rush to judgment before any investigation is undertaken and his assumption the police were in the wrong — which in this case the president avoided — are not exactly presidential behavior.
One longtime Republican operative figuratively rolled his eyes, e-mailing, “He thinks he will get support from folks who don’t normally vote GOP by attacking the police. Risky move and it’s a terrible one.” To be fair, however, although this may be representative of how Republicans react, it not an accurate to say Paul is being cynical or putting on an act. It is likely that Paul is entirely sincere. He is expounding straight from the libertarian playbook he and his father having been singing from for years.
We’ve heard this before. We can’t have e-Verify on immigration system because of Big Brother. We can’t have a National Security Agency system because of Big Brother. We can’t drone American jihadists in Syria or Yemen because the next thing you know they’ll be droning Americans at Starbucks. While the Pauls would bristle at restricting criminals’ right to carry whatever weapons the libertarian absolutists like, allowing the police the same protection is, again, one step from tyranny. The federal government is inherently and extremely abusive in this telling. That’s the perspective that led him to critique civil rights laws as an invasion of property rights.
Again I don’t think Paul is adopting his tone or ideas to get the GOP nomination. But he is wrong if he thinks he can win over voters who share these views in sufficient numbers to replace all the voters he will lose from the base of the GOP. Those anti-police, anti-drug-law voters are by and large also pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage and pro-Obamacare. They are called liberals. It is highly unlikely they will drop their Democratic affiliation to vote in GOP primaries for a guy who wants to slash the federal government, eliminate Obamacare and outlaw most abortion. The sliver of the electorate that is actually libertarian and isolationist but pro-life and pro-traditional marriage (Paul’s formulation) is, to put it mildly, small. In the GOP primary process, it is tiny. (Imagine him reading the op-ed at an Iowa GOP gathering. Dead silence, I’d suspect. He’d get cheered at the University of California at Berkeley, but there are not thousands of them who will register as Republicans to make up for the Iowans who would listen to his condemnation of police and the justice system, slack-jawed and even offended.)
What Rand Paul is selling — when he is honest about what he believes — is not that far from what his father peddled. Sure, he’s slapped a pro-Israel label on his back and is more polished. But eventually and especially when acting impulsively he winds up back to his father’s dilemma: How does a rock-ribbed libertarian win the GOP presidential nomination? A lot of his opponents have an answer: He doesn’t.