On Tuesday, Rand Paul was asked about the rioting in Baltimore following the death of a black man who was severely injured in police custody.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R), who has spoken extensively about the harmful effects of poverty and the need for criminal justice reform, noted that he passed through Baltimore last night and was "glad the train didn't stop."
“It's depressing. It's sad. It's scary. I came through the train on Baltimore [sic] last night; I'm glad the train didn't stop," he told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham. "The thing is that really there are so many things we can talk about...you know, the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society. This isn't just a racial thing, it goes across racial boundaries.”
He added later: “There are a lot of things that can be done but there can be no excuse for the behavior.”
Ahead of his presidential campaign launch, Paul set himself apart from most of his GOP rivals by speaking out early and sympathetically last summer after the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer.
"If I had been told to get out of the street as a teenager, there would have been a distinct possibility that I might have smarted off," Paul wrote in an op-ed for Time magazine five days after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. "But, I wouldn’t have expected to be shot." He also criticized police for donning riot gear and deploying tanks to confront protesters in Ferguson, where looting and arson also destroyed several businesses.
That was then.
Since announcing his presidential bid, his language seems to have shifted.
The campaign Web site he unveiled the day he launched his candidacy in his home state of Kentucky included a criminal justice explainer that laid out, in detail, his position on the issue. "Although I was born into the America that experiences and believes in opportunity, my trips to Ferguson, Detroit, Atlanta, and Chicago have revealed that there is an undercurrent of unease brought forth by our unjust criminal justice system," he wrote.
But in his speech at the campaign event, he touted a different list of cities that had shaped his approach to the issues. Instead of spotlighting the city at the heart of a high-profile racially-charged police incident, he instead include an overwhelmingly white, conservative region. "Although I was born into the America that experiences and believes in opportunity, my trips to Detroit, to Appalachia, to Chicago have revealed what I call an undercurrent of unease," he said.
And he no longer tied that unease to the criminal justice system, instead nodding briefly at the end of his speech to "an America where criminal justice is applied equally and any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed."
On the same day that Paul formally announced his campaign, officials in North Charleston, S.C., charged police officer Michael Slager with the shooting death of Walter Scott. Paul did not react to the incident until asked about it by a CNN interviewer the next day. He called Scott’s shooting a “terrible tragedy,” but chided the news media for using a broad brush to critique police behavior. “I think when you look at police across our country, 98, 99 percent of them are doing their job on a day-to-basis and aren’t doing things like that,” he said then.
And that week, on a visit to South Carolina, Paul did not mention the shooting during his remarks at a campaign event about 20 minutes away from the town where Scott died.
Although he often uses social media to weigh in with his views on news and unfolding events, Paul’s Twitter feed over the past two days has steered clear of Baltimore entirely, focused on fundraising and a contest to design a T-shirt for his campaign. Instead, he addressed the unrest in a Tuesday radio interview with conservative activist Laura Ingraham.
Paul criticized the Monday night violence, which followed the April 19 death of 25-year-old black Freddie Gray of a severe spinal cord injury that he sustained during an arrest. The officers involved in the arrest have been suspended.
Several other 2016 hopefuls weighed in with more extensive comments, in which they expressed condolences to Gray’s family and called for investigations into his death, as well as urged calm and call for leadership on the part of local, state and national officials.
"The police have to do what they have to do, and I am very sympathetic to the plight of the police in this," Paul said. When Ingraham asked Paul about the root causes of the riots, he said: “There are so many things we can talk about," the senator said, "the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of a moral code in our society."
Paul has visited historically black colleges and universities -- less than two weeks ago he dropped by Howard University in Washington, D.C. -- as well as met with civil rights groups and black church leaders during the past two years talking about the need for criminal justice reform. He also had co-sponsored legislation with Democrats in the Senate aimed at reforming sentencing laws that he says disproportionately affect African Americans and Latinos.
But polls consistently show a gaping gulf between black and white voters over whether there is racial bias in the criminal justice system. Whites believe that blacks and whites are treated the same; black respondents overwhelmingly disagree. White Republicans see even less of a problem than white Democrats.
The day Paul announced his presidential campaign, The Post noted the challenge facing the newly-minted candidate on the issue:
During his announcement speech on Tuesday, Paul again raised the issue of fairness in the criminal justice system. Video elements and speaker intros ahead of his address zeroed in on his efforts to reach out to voters in urban areas and communities of color.
That focus has brought Paul attention -- even some bipartisan praise. It's also an issue that, despite having caught on in some conservative circles, is unlikely to bring him much traction in the Republican primary.
The question facing the newly-minted candidate is how he now reconciles those two realities.
The first month of his campaign may have provided the beginning of an answer.