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.