Outreach, Rand Paul Style

I’ve been thinking lately about Rand Paul’s recent attempt at what is called minority outreach at Howard University, “the historically black college” (apparently the mandatory phrasing). I’ve been thinking about what, exactly, Paul did wrong. And I’ve been thinking about whether it’s fair of me to focus on where he misstepped instead of where he succeeded

I’ve spent as much time as I have on this because I’m quite aware of the liberal malady of knee-jerking cries of racism when it comes to the GOP. The fact that I didn’t have much of a sense of Rand Paul (besides his being Ron’s son and, y’know, named Rand — as in Ayn) until he blew up my RSS with his artless critique of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, that didn’t help either.

As tends to be the case with Ayn Rand fanatic-styled libertarians, Paul appears to be really, really bad at the whole empathy thing. The flip way he talked about segregation was an obvious sign; but the way he approached the Howard students — arrogant, condescending, defensive — was nearly as bad. You would think an intelligent, accomplished adult would be capable of at least asking himself, How might this sound to somebody who is not me?, when reading over his speeches.

There’s an incongruity between the gesture and the execution of the outreach, too. On the one hand, there’s his decision to do it at all, which is conceivably admirable and indicative of an open-mindedness of spirit. But on the other hand, the way he comported himself during his remarks and the back-and-forths afterwards was nearly the complete opposite; he was closed-off and combative. He lied about his previous positions. And (least of all) he was awkward. Truly, truly awkward.

I was trying to imagine what Paul was — or more accurately wasn’t—thinking. Because his was a distinct kind of social buffoonery, like volunteering to lead the pre-dinner prayer when you don’t know it and are a strident New Atheist to boot. It wasn’t just maladroit, it was casually so; it was as if Paul didn’t care if his ostensible audience, Howard University students, felt that he might as well have said, “Pipe down! Respect your 19th century Republican elders!”

Ultimately, I came to a conclusion. This was a publicity stunt. This was not “starting a conversation.” It had all the trappings of an almost Obama-esque display of post-partisan outreach and inquiry, but the real point for Rand (and, some would say, Obama) is a chance to bask in the reflection of his self-righteousness writ large nationwide.

It’s well known that Senator Paul wants to run for president in 2016, representing a “new” Republican and a hybrid Tea Party-Ron Paulite coalition. Everything he’s done since 2012 — the 13-hour filibuster over drones, now this address at Howard — has only added fuel to that fire. His filibuster, the argument ad absurdum about a drone strike at a Starbucks, was beside the point, a paranoid distraction from the drone program’s real problems of transparency and due process.

Howard was another missed opportunity. Paul could’ve expounded on his vision of a Left-Right coalition assembled to end the War on Drugs. Or he could’ve extended libertarianism’s open hand by renouncing the PATRIOT Act, stop-and-frisk, and countless other routine violations of our civil liberties. But all we got instead, besides some schadenfreude-y videos, was one more example.

Just one more example of what it looks like when a politician uses the desire for change as an excuse to seize the spotlight.

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21 thoughts on “Outreach, Rand Paul Style

  1. Maybe you should just admit that there is no way for conservatives to appeal to blacks and that any Republican who would give a speech at any HBU or at any gathering of blacks is a fool. Blacks are the most liberal voters in the U.S. and have zero interest in what Republicans have to say.

    Any Republican who tries to speak to a group of blacks either is cricized for not pandering enough to blacks or panders his ass off to not be criticized. Republicans speaking to blacks in a no win situation and should be avoided by all conservatives.

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    • Could you give an example of what you mean by “pandering”? I think conservative politicians could expand their appeal among African-Americans, but it would entail two things. First of all, they would have to change some policy positions, as well as emphasize more heavily some that they already accept and deemphasize others. This is the political equivalent of a routine fly ball, and shouldn’t pose any major problems–examples might include vocally opposing stop-and-frisk, talking more about the need for quality education in urban areas (it should be possible to combine a “bash the teachers unions” approach with a call for every kid in the city to be guaranteed a well-funded, quality education), and so on. Rand Paul did some of this.

      The second part is where he fell flat on his face, and it’s equally as important. No matter how much conservatives agree with black voters on policy issues, they’ll never get any votes as long as blacks see conservatives as insulting them to their face. For example, when you accuse the Democrats of being the real racists while ignoring all history after 1965, it’s so flagrantly unconvincing as to be disrespectful–any attempt at winning black votes for the GOP has to acknowledge that the GOP has frequently and recently sought the votes of people who are prejudiced against blacks in one way or another. When conservatives obviously respect and follow a dude like Rush Limbaugh, that sends a signal to black voters that the GOP isn’t actually interested in their votes. And of course this says nothing about stuff like voter ID laws. Even if you think they’re a good idea or necessarily, they are frequently (and, IMHO, rightfully) seen as an attempt to limit African-American voter participation. A political party looking for votes has to agree on policy with its targets; but it also has to have a basic level of respect for them. Imagine you were buying something on Craigslist, and you showed up and threw the cash on the ground, making it clear that you loathed and disrespected the guy selling his sofa to you. You have cash and he has a sofa and you both want an exchange, but if you act like an asshole he may well call the whole deal off, and he wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to do so.

      In a way I’m sympathetic to the plight of the GOP here, because the things they would have to do to gain black votes go against the ingrained instincts of every political campaign. When I worked at a Democratic political consulting firm, the mere fact of a voter being African-American was enough to put them into the “we want this person to turn out to vote” pile. Age, gender, support scores–all of it got overwhelmed by whether the voter was black. I assume it’s the same for the GOP–if you’re a GOP campaign manager, your goal is to win the race, and in the short run that means voter suppression. Asking them to give that up is like asking a running back to take a knee on the one-yard line after a 98-yard run. But that, and other gestures like it (going on Limbaugh, talking about Robert Byrd and not Jesse Helms, etc), are what really stops African-Americans from voting for the GOP. It’s not that African-Americans are more liberal than other groups; it’s that they’re continually disrespected by the GOP as a strategic play. Fixing that isn’t “pandering”; it’s the necessary prerequisite for competing for black votes. A democracy where one major party doesn’t reach across ethnic lines is not a healthy place to be. It’s on the GOP to fix this.

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      • The other trick is that it takes a lot more effort to fix your reputation than to screw it up in the first place. The idea that a one-time stunt like speaking at the right venue (or even one full campaign, for that matter) is going to win back the black vote is wildly optimistic. It’s like cheating on your wife and then getting upset when things aren’t totally fixed by flowers from WalMart.

        The party is going to have to do the long slog on this one, and as the OP noted, it’s not going to pay off immediately. They’d have to stop being asses and lose the extra votes that it was getting them, and the wouldn’t seee a real payoff for a few election cycles.

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        • Good point. It’s really an iterative process–the party makes an effort to not alienate black voters, at which point black voters start moving towards the party; thus, politicians are elected who depend a little more on black votes (and have more black campaign volunteers et al influencing their campaigns), and are less likely to alienate them, in a hopefully virtuous cycle.

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                • Of course, the audience was going to be hostile of Paul or to any Republican. The only question is whether the Republicans who think that they can appeal to a meaningful number of blacks are realistic or delusional.

                  I believe and the response to the Rand speech shows that any Republican who tries to appeal to black is not only wasting their time but will receive nothing but negative press.

                  The question to really ask black voters is will they be happy when the U.S. becomes a one party state and national politics becomes the same as the current state of politics in the District of Columbia.

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                  • I think the real lesson is that any Republican who tries to appeal to blacks in a condescending and ineffectual manner, and then whines about people being mean when he’s called on it, will get nothing but bad press. This doesn’t strike me as a terrible state of affairs. If the GOP actually wants to appeal to black voters, they have plenty of good politicians and good consultants–they could come up with a message that would resonate a lot more than this. The fact that they don’t bother, preferring to hide behind cries of reverse racism, speaks volumes.

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                    • But is there any way that a Republican can appeal to blacks without throwing other Republicans under the bus. Any position that a Republican takes that does not throw middle class whites under the bus will be seen as condescending and ineffectual.

                      No one can ever get close to stating what conservatives can do to appeal to blacks (and Hispanics). And no, saying that blacks are really conservatives is not only wrong but is very condescending by itself.

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          • So your party has built up a rep that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of one voting demographic. You could try to fix that, but it would not pay off for you in the current election cycle. Momentum is such that it would take many candidates over many election cycles to remove the bad taste and start seeing dividends.

            Meanwhile, you have a small but vocal constituency that won’t vote for you if you do this. Worse, it requires that you call out and aggressively police your own party–not something that goes over well in a highly disciplined party.

            So what do you do? Pretend you’re reaching out but make sure you earn a poke in the eye in the process. Leave the hard work to somebody else. Kick the can down the road until your party has lost so much of the minority vote that they simply have to do penance if they ever want to hold office again. That day isn’t today, so it’s really not your problem.

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            • You avoid the question that all progressives avoid: how does the more conservative party appeal to the most liberal demographic group in the U.S. while still being the least big conservative.

              How does the more conservative party appeal to a demographic group that demand high taxes, high levels of government spending, race-based entitlements, separate and unequal standards for education, employment, and government contracts.

              If the Republicans changed enough to really appeal to blacks, then the U.S. would effectively have two liberal parties. And then the question is, why does the U.S. need to liberal parties.

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              • The short answer is that I think you seriously overestimate how much elections are about issues rather than party loyalty and personality. If elections were about issues, the results wouldn’t swing back and forth so wildly from year to year.

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  2. The African American community is no more or less “liberal” “libertarian” or “conservative” then any other segment of society. They do have a long and ongoing experience with discrimination based on skin tone – discrimination that less then 200 years ago made them property, not human. SO they are perhaps more skeptical of politicians then many groups, and they are therefore more demanding then other groups as well.

    Republicans as a political party have missed extraordinary opportunities to leverage social conservationism in African American communities into political success. As but one example, many African American pastors and churches have campaigned heavily against gay marriage all over the country, yet socially conservative Republican candidates and politicians have refused to honor that campaign by joining it. Likewise, the breakdown of families, the loss of marriage as a community institution and the disproportionate incarceration rates of African American males are all social justice issues that socially conservative Republicans can speak important truths on. even today, in the Washington Post, Robert Samuelson noted the pernicious impacts of income equality in America’s minority communities. But Fiscally conservative Republicans silence their socially conservative brethren on these issues because the changes needed would require – at least initially – would require additional government outlays which the fiscal conservatives and libertarians vehemently oppose.

    Thus do Democrats continue to be the only real political voice in African American communities.

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    • This has always struck me as a reasonable rapprochement, but whenever I see it voiced by republicans, it is quickly swatted by democrats as somehow both tactically and morally wrong… since I don’t much care whether folks vote for Republicans, I can never remember why this is so…only that it always happens. Is this really a viable approach (setting aside, for the moment, the bogey-man of the Koch brothers squelching it)?

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      • I suspect it’s because liberals see social conservatism (even more so than economic conservatism) as fundamentally immoral and oppressive, and thus find the idea of Republicans seeking black voters on the basis of shared social conservatism as repellent (and as, sort of, an application of “What’s the Matter with Kansas” tactics to black people rather than just lower-income white people). In addition, it’s a bit of a problematic assumptions since, as TNC has pointed out, opposition to same-sex marriage isn’t any higher among African-Americans than among other ethnicities once you control for other factors such as income and religious observance.

        On major news sites – and even more so on this site – you can find a substantial number of economic conservatives who are also social liberals; this position is broadly accepted. Social conservatism is a lot less socially acceptable among the major media organizations. The Atlantic, for example, has lots of economic conservatives, but they haven’t had a pro-life person since Douthat left for the NYT, and I think Douthat’s the only social conservative at the Times.

        Politically, this approach would be a challenge because it’s the diametric opposite of what libertarians want, and big business (which doesn’t give a hoot for social conservatism) is more behind the libertarian side of thing. The GOP isn’t going to risk losing its whole funding-and-lobbying base. Nor its voter base – when you look at the exit polls, richer people tend to be Republicans and poorer ones tend to be Democrats, even when you control for factors like ethnicity.

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    • The idea that blacks are socially conseravative has been debunked many times. Do you really think that a demographic group where more than 70% of the children are born to single mothers is really socially conservative. Blacks could not care less about home schooling, covenant marriage, abortion, prayer in school, or social engineering in the public schools. Other than their hatred for affluent white homosexuals, they have nothing in common.

      However what blacks seem to want, based upon their votes, is a big, high tax government that provides a large assortment of entitlements. More than 70% of blacks support the idea of race-based reparations and even more than 70% support race-based quotas , set asides, and affirmative action.

      Do you really think that Republicans should throw blue collar whites like Jennifer Gratz (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gratz_v._Bollinger) to pander to blacks? How many votes would Republicans gain and how many would they lose if they made such choices.

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