There's good news and bad news for Kentucky GOP Senator Rand Paul on the thorny issue of race. First there's the good. He's far and away the only 2016 GOP prospective presidential candidate who has made even a smidgen of an effort to crack the GOP's toughest of tough sales and that's to woo black voters. He has barnstormed the country making high-profile speeches and appearances before black audiences, church groups, and academics. He capped that with his recent appearance before the National Urban League's annual convention in Cincinnati.
His stock pitch boils down to "I'm the one top Republican who has gone to bat for greater support for minority business," a softer approach to the GOP's full-throated effort to stymie minority voting rights, and for criminal justice system reform to mitigate the disproportionate targeting of blacks. This includes working closely with the GOP's number one hit target Attorney General Eric Holder to devise a package of legislative reforms to overhaul the wildly racially-tinged drug sentencing laws. He's topped that with the ludicrous comparison of himself to Martin Luther King Jr., and by tossing out an occasional quote from Malcolm X.
The result of his schmooze campaign with blacks has been underwhelming. But it has done the two things that Paul intends, and that's to begin to paint a picture of him as the one Republican who sees the importance of and wants the black vote. And he has made the in-person effort that GOP leaders and the Republican National Committee pay mighty lip service to and that's the sale of the party as a kinder, gentler, minority-friendly party. In April, a Fox News survey of black voters found that 17 percent viewed him unfavorably. He likely has edged up a percentage point or two since then. Given the GOP's abominable past, present and track record with blacks, that in itself could probably be considered a small victory for Paul.
That's a victory he sorely needs since he totes more racial baggage than any other GOP would-be presidential candidate. That is the bad news. It was no accident that when he spoke at the Urban League convention, he spoke to a nearly empty room. The organizers to give the presentation a look of importance had to prod people to fill in the front rows. The room still had an empty look. That's only the start of Paul's steep uphill climb with blacks.
There's still the shadow of his widely quoted smoking gun interview with the Louisville Courier Journal in 2010 in which he blew off the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a slap against private businesses' right to racially discriminate. When asked to explain, he did the obligatory disavowal of racism, but did not back away from his belief that the Civil Rights Act went way too far in telling private businesses that they couldn't racially discriminate. But Paul knows that position would render any presidential campaign DOA. So now, whenever asked, he sounds a note of enthusiasm in claiming that he backs it without any reservations. This isn't all. Paul was dogged for a time by revelations that a few of his key staff members had strong ties to neo-Confederate and racist fringe groups. He quickly disavowed any personal connect with these groups and their philosophies. But the odor and the suspicion of the possible connections hasn't gone away.
Even if Rand didn't trash the Civil Rights Act, or had a motley group of unsavory characters among his political entourage, his odd mishmash of ultra-conservatism and libertarian pronouncements would mark him as racially suspect. A cornerstone of the jumble is his view of government and what it should or should not do about civil rights. Rand holds that government should have minimal role in many areas of law and public policy concerns and that includes civil rights laws and enforcement. This old, worn, and thoroughly discredited view will still warm the hearts of the packs of closet bigots who pine for the old days when racial and gender discrimination was the American norm and government did little to protect black and gay rights.
Any other time and place in recent American politics this would instantly make him unfit to hold any state or national office. And those who defend his view would be branded as bigots and crackpots. But this is not any other time or place. Paul clearly wants to be president and thinks that he has a real shot at the nomination and the office. Though he probably does want some black support to get it, he'll still need the backing of the GOP's core base of white, conservative, Tea Party-leaning males in the South and the Heartland to seal the nomination. This alone insures that race will continue to haunt Paul.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson