Even as criticism of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and other prominent politicians began to mount for their lack of comment on the ongoing crisis in Ferguson, Mo., Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul penned a thought-provoking op-ed on the situation in Time magazine.
"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 writes. "But, I wouldn't have expected to be shot." He goes on to make the case for a demilitarization of the police in America within the framework of a broader criticism of "big government"; "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," Paul writes.
Paul also ties what is happening in Missouri to his broader campaign against the government's expanded reach into average Americans' phones and e-mail accounts. "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," he writes.
And, finally, Paul addresses the racial element of the situation. "Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention," writes Paul. "Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately."
Now, imagine any other Republican — literally, ANY OTHER ONE — writing something like that without taking a huge amount of incoming about being late to the issues, etc. That goes double for the other people Paul is likely to face off against for the Republican primary nomination in two years' time.
The Ferguson op-ed is the latest piece of evidence that Rand Paul is simply fishing in different waters than many of the people who want to lead the Republican party in 2016. While his appeal to libertarian-minded Republicans gets most of the ink — Robert Draper did a terrific piece on that angle last weekend in the New York Times magazine — Paul's ability to appeal to younger people, a part of which is tied in with his libertarian leanings, and his real attempt to court non-white constituencies sometimes gets lost.
Paul's attempts to broaden the GOP coalition by speaking out on things like the NSA surveillance program and what should be done to prevent another Ferguson come as virtually everyone within (and without) the party acknowledge that if Republicans can't grow their coalition beyond white voters, they will have major problems winning national elections in the future. In 2012, only one in ten people who voted for Mitt Romney weren't white, a figure that is simply not sustainable for a national party.
Paul's critics will note that being "interesting" is not the same thing as being electable. And, there's no question that Paul is more willing to take risks on issues — Ferguson being only the latest example — than more establishment politicians. Those risks can pay off — Paul's filibuster against NSA surveillance turned him into a national star — but can also backfire if/when more information comes out that undermines the initial conclusions. (That reality is why President Obama continues to be decidedly temperate in his remarks on the death of Michael Brown.)
All fair points. But the electoral and demographic realities of the nation right now mean that the Republican party will need to take some risks in terms of stretching what the party says — and who they say it to — if they want to win. That doesn't mean abandoning core principles. It does mean, however, making sure that when moments like Ferguson happen, the GOP has a credible voice both diagnosing the problems and offering solutions. And that's exactly what Paul is doing.