WASHINGTON -- Rand Paul came to Howard University on Wednesday and argued to students at the historically black college that the Republican Party hasn't changed.
It seemed at first like Paul misspoke.
But Paul did, in fact, intend to say the GOP is the same party it's always been. That might seem like a strange strategy for a speech to black students by a white Republican senator from Kentucky, representing a party that has been almost completely estranged from African-American voters for the last few decades.
Paul, however, said he wanted to "resurrect" the history of the GOP prior to the Civil Rights era.
"The story of emancipation, voting rights and citizenship, from Frederick Douglass until the modern civil rights era, is really in fact the history of the Republican Party," Paul said. "How did the Republican Party, the party of the great emancipator, lose the trust and faith of an entire race?"
Paul spent a substantial portion of his 20-minute speech (for which he read from teleprompters) talking about the history of the GOP and race, and returned to that theme often during a 30-minute question and answer session with students.
The event went remarkably smoothly for Paul, a 50-year-old freshman senator who identifies himself as a Tea Party lawmaker and may run for president in 2016. But his most off-note moment came as he explained why he wanted to talk so much about race and the history of the GOP and Democrats.
Paul put himself off balance by getting the name wrong of Edward Brooke, the first popularly elected black senator, who was a Republican from Massachusetts and served in Congress from 1967 to 1979. Paul called him "Edwin Brookes," drawing snickers from the crowd. Paul forged ahead, but ran into more trouble.
"[Brooke's] comment was if Democrats had the incredible history of abolition, emancipation, voting rights and of being for all the civil war amendments, you'd hear about it all the time, because Democrats are good at talking about stuff like that. He said Republicans have done a terrible job, and that's why I think we need to resurrect some of this," Paul said, explaining his focus on the past.
He then addressed the audience: "How many of you, if I would have said, who do you think the founders of the NAACP are, do you think they were Republicans or Democrats, would everybody in here know they were all Republicans?"
A loud murmur went up from the audience indicating that, yes, they did know that. Afterward, one student, Michelle Koch, told The Huffington Post that much of Paul's talk was "a history lesson, too, that we already knew a lot about."
Paul backpedaled as the volume in the room dialed up.
"All right, you know more about it, and that’s -- and I don't mean that to be insulting," he said. "I don't know what you know and you don't -- I'm trying to find out what the connection is. But the thing is that I think the general public -- the Republican Party hasn't talked enough about the great history and the interaction between the Republican Party and black history and voting rights in our country."
"And I would try to make the argument, and it's an uphill battle. I mean frankly it is an uphill battle, for me to try to convince you that we haven't changed. But that's part of me being here. That's what I'm trying to do anyway," he said.
Paul talked about many other things, but a main thrust of this rebranding effort of his own party was, interestingly enough, not an attempt to look forward, but instead to look back. And even if it was at moments awkward, as one student had predicted a day ahead of time, Paul got credit from the audience for at least showing up.
"I thought he was trying, so I thought that was good," Koch said. " If [Republicans are] trying, I guess it's better to have more people trying to get our vote."
Kayla Cook, another student, said: "I don't agree with the senator on a lot of things, but I appreciate him coming to Howard, because Republican politicians usually don't come here."
Paul did get high marks from both Koch and Cook for his position on getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent federal crimes.
The crowd applauded three times: when Paul took the podium, when he talked about repealing the sentence requirement, and when he concluded his speech.
Two students interrupted Paul's speech at one point, holding up a sign that said, in the red, black and green colors of the Pan-African flag, "Howard University Doesn't Support White Supremacy." They were ushered out by security, but after the speech, Brian Menifee, a 23-year-old mechanical engineering student, told HuffPost that the protest was not against Paul in particular, or the Republicans, or even the Democrats.
"It's about like a system that is in place," Menifee said after the speech. "President Obama stands for white supremacy. When you talk about the drone attacks, when you talk about police brutality, President Obama, he reinvigorates those systems with his policies. You don't have to be non-white to not support white supremacy."
Paul watched as Menifee and his fellow protester were removed, and then quipped: "You know I wasn't sure if my speech would be entertaining, but now …"
He carried himself with the almost lackadaisical demeanor that he usually shows in other settings, and made his arguments on policy and political philosophy from a position of fairness and justice for all minority groups, not just African Americans or ethnic groups.
"Whenever [Martin Luther King Jr.] talked about an unjust law, what's always intrigued me about this is a lot of the things MLK talked about were race, but really what he talked about when he talked about what was a just law goes beyond race," Paul said. "He said that an unjust law -- this is a good way to look at any law -- an unjust law is any law that a majority -- not just a racial majority, any majority -- enforces on a minority but does not make binding on themselves."
He said that some have called mandatory minimum sentences "the new Jim Crow" because of its disproportionate impact on minorities. Paul agreed that the laws have been unjust, but added: "To simply be against them for that reason misses a larger point. They are unfair to everyone: white, black, brown."
Paul's prepared remarks, sent to reporters, showed an all-caps emphasis on one word: "They are unfair to EVERYONE."
The speech also, at points, laid bare the size of Paul's ambition. He has said before that he is considering running for president in 2016, but some of his comments were particularly revelatory about the way he thinks of himself.
"My wife, Kelley, asked me last week, 'Do you ever have doubts about trying to advance a message for an entire country?'"
And when discussing sentencing guidelines, he demonstrated a resolve to singlehandedly change the public perception of the GOP.
"Republicans are often miscast as uncaring or condemning of kids who make bad choices," he said. "I, for one, plan to change that."