Political Hay

Rand’s Real Reachout

A rising Republican reconnects with black voters at Howard University.

By 4.11.13

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The recent RNC autopsy confirmed the Republican brand is in bad shape. This “Grand Old Party” has emphasized neither the former nor the latter. Instead, they’ve underscored the “Old.” Consensus is, they’re outmoded, out-of-touch, aging white guys.

In the immediate aftermath of November’s disappointment, GOP pollster Resurgent Republic stated the obvious: “Republicans have run out of persuadable white voters.” Eighty-eight percent of Mitt Romney’s supporters were white. At that point, you’re either unable to communicate your values, unwilling to extend the olive branch, or content to campaign in monochrome. The Left was happy to provide all the duplicitous scare tactics and rhetorical ordnance needed to hammer this position into America’s collective conscience.

Enter Stage Right, Senator Rand Paul. Straight into the lion’s den.

Speaking yesterday before a capacity crowd at Howard University -- a premier historically black college, located in Washington, D.C. -- the junior Senator from Kentucky emphasized reclamation of public trust, and a hard reboot of the conservative, limited government trademark. He delivered a plucky address that seasoned principles of equality and freedom with a healthy dash of Prufrock and Toni Morrison.

Remember, this is the guy who was skewered for his targeted criticisms of the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- an issue that threatened to unsettle his 2010 Senate campaign and lingers about a presidential run in 2016.

He tackled that controversy from the outset:

And here I am today at Howard, a historically black college. Here I am, the guy who once presumed to doubt, if only a small portion, to doubt a portion of the Civil Rights Act.

And when I am contrite and willing to accept whatever rebuke it is deemed I deserve, I think of Toni Morrison of Howard University.

Toni Morrison said, "If there is a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."

I can recite books that have been written, or I can plunge into the arena and stumble and maybe fall but at least I will have striven.

What I am about is a philosophy that leaves YOU -- to fill in the blanks.

This was emphatically not the sort of speech then-candidate Romney offered the NAACP. At the time, Romney seemed content to win points for showing up. He hit his applause lines, suffered some boos, and emerged “pleasantly surprised by the positive response.”

He went on to win a whopping 7 percent of the black vote -- an improvement over John McCain’s anemic 5 percent share.

Say what you will about Rand Paul’s politics; he bleeds sincerity when speaking. He didn’t condescend to his audience. Opening with T.S. Eliot tends to elevate the discussion. And he took his lumps.

His audience arrived defiant. A protester bearing a “white supremacy” banner was forcibly removed from the auditorium hall. Paul stumbled during the question-and-answer session when he inquired whether assembled students knew that the founders of the NAACP were Republicans.

“We know our history!” they roared.

Which goes to show: it’s probably time to roll up the “Party of Lincoln” banner. When it comes to outreach, it doesn’t matter what the party was then. It matter what it is now.

Paul acknowledged Republicans failure to connect with black voters:

How did the party that elected the first black U.S. Senator, the party that elected the first 20 African American Congressmen, become a party that now loses 95% of the black vote?

How did the Republican Party, the party of the great Emancipator, lose the trust and faith of an entire race? 

From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, for a century, most black Americans voted Republican. How did we lose that vote?

To understand how Republicans lost the African American vote, we must first understand how we won the African American vote.

Sen. Paul’s discussion of Kentucky’s troubled history of race relations offered sufficient historical context. Republicans once stood for emancipation, civil rights, “and the promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets.”

But as Paul notes, “Oh that's all well and good but that was a long time ago… what have you done for me lately?”

Fast forward to the present tense. Paul’s reference to Waiting for Superman -- a film that details America’s failing education system, and the fight for school choice -- was apt. America’s public school monopoly exists to benefit technocrats and teachers’ unions. Inner city students have suffered, unreasonably, within education’s iron triangle. Likewise Paul’s mention of his bill to repeal federal mandatory minimum sentencing was on point. Limiting judicial discretion by law binds judges' hands and “disproportionately punishes the black community.” 

His approach to the Q&A was fearless. Questions spanned from the District of Columbia’s special sovereignty to the “truth” behind the assassination of Malcolm X. His replies were respectful. He stood fast against criticism. From time to time, he got a smattering of applause. He may not have won many votes today, but he did gain respect. That’s an important first step.

Paul understands that timeless principles of justice and freedom can anchor outreach to minorities. More importantly, when armed with an authentic value system and a little historical reference, you can engage in a productive discussion. But you won’t accomplish that connection by pandering -- or printing reams of “autopsies,” while muttering “outreach,” ad infinitum, to the bathroom mirror at the RNC building.

Ideological consistency has yet to lose the fight for limited government. Time’s passed for a retrenched consultant class to win that fight. This is a job for a new and dynamic majority. A core cadre who have earned the support of individual Americans, united against government overreach. 

We must to be willing to have this conversation. To search for common ground, together.

Rand Paul was willing to take the first step. It remains to be seen if the party walks with him.

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About the Author

Reid Smith writes from Washington. Follow him on Twitter @reidtsmith