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Why Republicans aren’t quite sure how to talk about Ferguson either

Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

One of the many important questions the Republican Party is grappling with as it seeks to remake itself ahead of the 2016 election is this: Does it want to renew its tradition of being the tough on crime, zero tolerance party of law and order? Or does it want to shed its long-established reputation for toughness and embrace a more compassionate platform?

Either way, one thing is clear: the '90s are over.

A fitful evolution for the GOP has been thrown into sharp relief this week by the heightened tensions in suburban St. Louis. Five days after a police officer fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in the city of Ferguson, most Republicans have been conspicuously silent on the escalating conflict between protesters and law enforcement. And of the handful of vocal lawmakers, the majority have spoken out sharply against the police, adopting postures that would have seemed far out of the GOP mainstream just a decade or two ago.

President Obama has faced difficulties finding the right tone and timing with his response to what happened in Ferguson, strained by the optics of being on vacation and the tricky balance he's sought to strike between calming the strife and demanding accountability.

Republicans, squeezed between competing law enforcement ideologies, have found it just as tough.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a libertarian-leaning likely presidential candidate, wrote on Time Magazine's Web site Thursday that police have overreacted by brandishing weapons and tactics normally reserved for the military.

“There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace, but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response,” he wrote. “The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action.”

Protesters in Ferguson have complained about what they see as overly aggressive attempts at control by the police. And a firestorm was set off when officers arrested two journalists, including The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery. Police, meanwhile, say they have been trying to curb looting by maintaining an active presence.

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), another libertarian-leaning Republican with a well-established reputation for eschewing traditional GOP views, voiced concerns on Twitter that law enforcement was being too aggressive.

“Images & reports out of #Ferguson are frightening. Is this a war zone or a US city? Gov't escalates tensions w/military equipment & tactics,” he tweeted Wednesday.

The weigh-in from Paul and Amash was strikingly similar to language coming from across the aisle: Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) argued Thursday, in a statement released around the same time as Paul's, that authorities need to “de-militarize this situation—this kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution.”

The emergence of Paul and Amash as prominent GOP figures has signaled that the party is no longer exactly it was back in the 1990s, when New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani became a national Republican hero thanks to his tough crackdown on crime by way of measures many Democrats viewed as draconian.

But the fact that Paul and Amash haven't been joined by a chorus of other Republicans suggests the shift isn't quite universal. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) adopted a much more measured posture Thursday, offering his condolences for Brown's death but not criticizing law enforcement.

"In the wake of this terrible tragedy, my thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of Michael Brown. I strongly support a full and thorough investigation of the events surrounding his death, and subsequent actions, including the detention of journalists covering this heartbreaking situation," he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, most of the party's 2016 presidential candidates have yet to weigh in.

“There is an opportunity, I think, for leaders to stop being afraid and really kind of step into the conversation and help guide it,” said Michael Steele, a former Republican National Commitee chairman.

But Steele, who is African American, says he doesn't fault most Republicans for staying silent on such a volatile and complex matter.

“I don’t think it belongs in the realm of the partisan,” he said. “I’m not going to excoriate them for not saying anything or not saying the right thing because who the hell knows that the right thing is to say is."

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was less critical of law enforcement than Amash or Paul. He released a careful statement Thursday that seemed to empathize with all parties – police, the protesters, the press and civil libertarians.

“Reporters should never be detained -- a free press is too important -- simply for doing their jobs. Civil liberties must be protected, but violence is not the answer. Once the unrest is brought to an end, we should examine carefully what happened to ensure that justice is served,” he said.

Law enforcement endorsements are still prized possessions in politics. And being seen as too weak on crime remains a drawback -- even if the definition of "weak" seems to have shifted. Walking a careful line, as Cruz is trying to do, may become standard practice for many Republicans looking to project an image of strength without alienating a growing base of libertarian-leaning activists.

Paul, for his part, is clearly trying to endear himself to that base full-bore, embracing the role of de facto standard-bearer.

"Americans must never sacrifice their liberty for an illusive and dangerous, or false, security," he wrote Thursday. "This has been a cause I have championed for years, and one that is at a near-crisis point in our country."