Wednesday, April 10, 2013

About Rand Paul's Howard Speech

Today I watched Sen. Rand Paul give a speech before Howard students on the relationship between blacks and the GOP. Much of my twitter feed watched the speech, but if without context you'd think they were watching completely different speeches by the tone of the reactions. The libertarians were more or less enjoying the speech, the Left seemed to be yelling in unison "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?" I find myself squarely in between these camps on this issue, but am closer to the Left in the speech's efficacy.
From the outset, Paul bombed with two opening jokes about how people had warned him about going to Howard, perhaps the most storied HBCU, because of its mostly black, presumably Democratic student body. While not really offensive, the jokes were inappropriate. The audience didn't need to be reminded about the Otherness with which Republicans view blacks and Democrats generally. (Say nothing of universities.) But out-of-place reminders seemed to be the order of the day for the junior senator from Kentucky.
Paul spent much of his speech retracing Civil Rights history and the role of the Republican party in it--conveniently glossing over anything since 1964. He was seemingly unaware that a university dedicated to black uplift would be peopled with individuals whose understanding of The Struggle is not only equal to but, in many cases, surely surpasses his own. While it may come as a shock to some people, black people are well aware of what the Republican party used to be. Paul compounded this problem by saying that it was the Democrats who were the slavery party and the party of Jim Crow.

Well, that's true enough, but the false equivalence of the Democratic parties of 1863, 1963, and 2013 is an insult to everyone's collective intelligence and he should be ashamed of himself for conflating them. Whether or not you buy Kevin Williamson's contrarian view of the modern Republican party, it is just wholly absurd to think the parties of Alexander Stephens and Richard Russell would ever nominate a black man as its titular leader. Think what you will of today's DNC, the word "Democrat" just doesn't mean what it used to and saying it does is contemptibly ridiculous.
 Paul's comments betrayed a low intellectual expectation and historical awareness of his audience. Given the venue, this is particularly insulting, and I would bet that cost him any credibility he may have earned by just showing up.
Unfortunately lost in all this, Paul finally began to talk about serious policy issues we face in this century toward the end of his remarks. He brought up two issues, specifically, that could begin to bridge the credibility deficit between the GOP and black voters: mandatory minimum sentences and the Drug War. On these issues, Paul is a solid senator and he's been getting better. But so much of his time and effort was dedicated to telling an audience that they've misunderstood the GOP and it hasn't changed from its Civil Rights heyday.

It is as if the leader of the new vanguard of the GOP decided to approach black America and say: "Come back! It's you, not us! But we forgive you for the misunderstanding."

Relatedly, I was baffled when he hailed the Reagan era as a sterling example of Republican vision to that audience. Whatever his economic policies did for the country, Reagan's escalation of the War on Drugs turned America's inner cities into the killing fields of that war. The mandatory minimum sentences Paul opposes today were ramped up in the Reagan era in response to the "crack epidemic," eventually culminating in the 100:1 sentencing disparity for crack to powder cocaine, only recently lowered to 18:1. Black people disproportionately suffered from that escalation and those laws, with bi-partisan consensus, no less. This is what he should have been driving home: that government, however well-meaning, can ruin lives and devastate communities through unintended consequences.

This is his view of government and, on these issues, young Democrats should work with the GOP to correct some of these horrible wrongs.
That's the history he should have begun, started, and ended with. Paul missed a great opportunity today. Let's hope the next time he tries something like this, and I sincerely hope he does, he comes with a higher estimation of the audience he's speaking to. Maybe then, if he focuses on today's issues and why his approach can benefit all people, and particularly the folks in his audience, he might leave the room with a little more respect than he came in with.
bellum medicamenti delenda est


Libby said...

"This is what he should have been driving home: that government, however well-meaning, can ruin lives and devastate communities through unintended consequences."

I didn't see the speech, but this sentence suggests to me that Sen. Paul wasn't there to promote small-government politics, but rather, the Grand Old Party. Good to know the GOP is still that astoundingly tone-deaf. I see they haven't learned a thing.

GLaB said...

Rand Paul: "Youa culpa."