05/22/2010 11:17 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Laughing off Rand, Like Pa Ron, Is a Mistake

Rand Paul's blow off of his scheduled appearance on Meet the Press was final proof for many that he's a shallow, clownish, one hit political wonder who when the heat's on will wilt. Paul canceled because he knew that he'd be subject to an endless round of questions that would pick and poke at him to explain more about what he meant when he said that he had an issue with the government telling private businesses not to racially discriminate. Paul would have gotten pounded on that point. But it wouldn't have mattered if he garbled it again. He's already sent the signal that he wanted and needed to send to legions of backers and that's that the federal government is big, intrusive, and hostile and the man responsible for making it even bigger, more hostile and intrusive, sits in the White House.

The issue underneath this is in part race. Rand followed the well worn script laid out by Pa Ron, and that's to toss out a few racially loaded lines tied into the big bad government theme, step back and watch the flock eat it up and the detractors wail away at them. And then duck, dodge, and deny that there was any racial animus intended. Ron teed off on immigrants, slavery, welfare, and the Civil Rights Act during presidential campaign 2008. On his campaign website he highlighted this as "Issue: Racism" on the site. "Government as an institution is particularly ill-suited to combat bigotry." In other words, the 1954 landmark Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of education school desegregation decision, the 1964 and 1968 Civil Rights Acts, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and countless court decisions and state laws that bar discrimination are worthless. Worse, said Paul, they actually promote bigotry by dividing Americans into race and class.

Rand didn't go that far. That would have required too much time, and thought, and it didn't lend itself to a neat sound bite. But again he didn't need to, the message that race is an issue, and should be, was sent. This is more than enough to cement his credentials as a politician who won't shrink from hammering Obama. But that's only part of the reason that Paul will have more staying power than he probably should.

Nearly two decades ago, the GOP found that the volatile mix of code word racial hints, big government and economics could whip frustrated, rebellious, angry whites into a frenzy far better than crude race baiting. Many blue-collar white males believed that they were losing ground to minorities and women in the workplace, schools, and in society.

The target of their anger was big government that tilted unfairly in spending priorities toward social programs that benefited minorities at the expense of hard-working whites. This is exactly how hate groups, anti-Obama Web sites and bloggers, and radio talk jocks craft the reason for the anger and alienation that many white males feel toward anything out of the White House. The Paul's stock blend of anti-government politics and calls defending personal freedom translates to even more fear, rage and distrust of big government.

Tea party activists rail at Obama, the Democrats, big government, the elites, and Wall Street. Yet, they also grouse about abortion, family values, gay rights, and tax cuts -- not race. Rightwing populism, with its mix of xenophobia, loath of government as too liberal, too tax-and-spend, and too permissive, and a killer of personal freedom has been the engine that powered Reagan and Bush White House wins. Scores of GOP governors, senators and members of congress have used wedge issues to win office and maintain political dominance. The GOP grassroots brand of jackboot populism has stirred millions operating outside the confines of the GOP establishment. Ron was evident of that. Even though his presidential campaign quickly fizzled, he revved up packs of fanatical backers, who virtually elevated him to deity status.

Son Rand is equally good evidence of how to harness the power of anger. The instant his quip about the Civil Rights Act hit the airwaves, virtually every GOP mainstream politico back pedaled fast from his view of civil rights and him. This is not a negative. Days before he became a near household name, polls showed that the GOP, that's the GOP mainstream, the House, the Senate, and packs of state officials were doing even more dismal that the Democrats. The tea party revolt had taken dead aim on getting rid of any GOP politician who showed even the faintest sign of making nice with Obama and the Democrats. Paul immensely benefited from the insurgency. A sparring match on Meet the Press or with anyone else in the alleged Obama corrupted, liberal media, on of all things civil rights, wouldn't do much for him. He's already made the point he needed to make and to laugh him and it off, is a mistake.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press).
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