In an indignant rant on Fox News, Juan Williams made an excellent point regarding Al Sharpton, who gets consulted by the White House on the attorney general and listened to respectfully on racial issues. Not only is Sharpton reportedly in arrears on taxes, but, as Williams reminds us, he was front and center in the Tawana Brawley controversy and has been accused of, in essence, shaking down corporations. Conservatives have also been up in arms regarding what they see as fanning the flames of racial hatred in the Ferguson, Mo., situation and Trayvon Martin case.

The Rev. Al Sharpton speaks at a news conference at the White House last year. (Associated Press/Carolyn Kaster)

Williams argues, “It’s insulting to black people that he would be lifted up to that height.”

And that raises the question: Why is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) courting Sharpton and why don’t Republicans denounce him for doing so, just as they do Democrats? Last week, it was reported:

Sen. Rand Paul and the Rev. Al Sharpton met for a “candid” breakfast date on Thursday.

“We talked about his position on dealing with some criminal justice issues that I am concerned about,” Sharpton said in a statement from the National Action Network, where he serves as president . . . Sharpton and Paul tweeted that they “don’t agree on much,” but both were in the Senate Dining Room to discuss working toward reforms that would benefit the African-American community.

If Paul wants to take on criminal justice reform, more power to him. And if he thinks this will boost him with African American voters, he won’t be the first pol to try to pick agenda items that impress slices of the electorate. But in doing precisely what the administration and so many liberals do — treating Al Sharpton as a respected and important figure — he does his own credibility harm.

Former congressman Artur Davis, a Democrat-turned-Republican who reportedly has his eye on the mayoral election in Montgomery, Ala., has criticized the manner in which some Republicans have tried to court African American voters. On Paul’s meeting with Sharpton, Davis told me, “I have a better idea for Rand Paul. Meet me in Montgomery, Alabama, where the modern civil rights movement was born, and let’s visit neighborhoods where ordinary people are struggling to raise their kids; not ‘leaders’ with cable shows, but families doing the best they can against tough odds.” He added, “We can visit churches in Montgomery that buried teenagers last summer who were killed not by cops but by other kids.”

Just because elite media have turned a blind eye toward Sharpton’s behavior doesn’t mean Republicans should. Conservatives lawyers and civil rights activists were dismayed. Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity remarked, “Making appeals with an eye on race is racial pandering, which is bad, and racial pandering by meeting with a race-baiter is worse.” Likewise, Hans von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department civil rights division lawyer, observes, “It is disappointing to see Senator Rand Paul meeting with a race hustler like Al Sharpton, a self-promoting charlatan who has done his best to deepen the racial divide and stir up racial strife and violence.” He continues, “Paul seems to be forsaking principle for what he mistakenly believes is political advantage in his quixotic quest for the presidency.”

Paul certainly can get free media with stunts like this, and by obsessively beating up fellow Republicans, saying the GOP brand “sucks,” but at what price and how many Republicans and independents will he offend in the meantime?

Indeed, the Republican brand is doing fine lately (they did win a landslide election), so one wonders if he is simply bad-mouthing his party to score points with the media.

Consider, by contrast, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) who has spent more than a year learning from and visiting with anti-poverty leaders, including African American pastors and community leaders. There’s also New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has spent years with African American politicians, school board members, teachers and parents in his effort to improve Newark and Camden schools. When a shooting in Columbus, Ohio, raised racial tensions, Gov. John Kasich reached out not to self-appointed big shots but the people affected:

A special grand jury concluded . . . the officers involved in the shooting would face no criminal charges.

“You have to respect the decision of the grand jury,” Kasich said. “But I thought it was important that we move forward and have (The U.S. Department of) Justice look at the whole case.”

Kasich said he talked to Dayton area faith leaders before the grand jury’s decision was released.

“Before the verdict came out I touched base with a few of the leaders of the African-American community. I had a couple of conversations after the verdict,” Kasich said. “I canceled everything that day to be in Columbus out of respect for the family. It’s a tragic loss of life. I just felt like I had that responsibility,” Kasich said.

Both Christie and Kasich have done what Paul is striving to achieve — support from a healthy portion (about 25 percent) of non-white voters.  In his sole election to date, Paul got only 13 percent of the African American vote, better than some Republicans but nothing to brag about.

It seems that it is Christie’s and Kasich’s example that should be followed. They are not you-are-on-your-own libertarian-leaning types. It is noteworthy that both governors expanded Medicaid, subscribed to Common Core and have been pursing issues like school reform. Constant attention to real African American community leaders and voters, plus an appealing agenda, has shown more results than any other formula. On the other hand, social conservative and fire-breathing Republican Ken Cuccinelli got a grand total of 8 percent, despite help from Paul, in the Virginia gubernatorial race in 2013.

Paul should get credit for wanting to reach out, but he is hardly the first to try, and he has a long way to go to catch up to Republicans like Christie and Kasich. Making a show of sitting with Sharpton and serving rewarmed libertarian nostrums at black universities are not, I strongly suspect, the way to win over these voters. From the late Jack Kemp to Paul Ryan, reform conservatives have been reaching out and offering policy ideas that benefit African Americans — as well as other Americans — who are looking to capture their slice of the American dream. An agenda that is not based on invective toward government but on proactive problem-solving is much more likely to succeed — and already has — in capturing African American votes, as well as the votes of other minorities and women.