Rand Paul, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Kentucky, sought Thursday to deflect attacks on his position that the Civil Rights Act may represent federal government overreach by emphasizing his support for the legislation in its totality and rejecting the idea that he is in favor of repealing it.
Late Thursday, Paul said on CNN that he “would have voted yes” for the landmark legislation in 1964.
“I think that there was an overriding problem in the South so big that it did require federal intervention in the ’60s. And it stems from things that I said, you know, had been going on, really, 120 years too long. And the Southern states weren’t correcting it,” Paul said.
“And I think there was a need for federal intervention.”
The White House meanwhile said Paul’s comments made the day prior were out of line.
“I think the issues that, that many fought for in the ‘50s and the ‘60s were settled a long time ago in landmark legislation and the discussion about whether or not to support those, I don’t think, shouldn’t have a place in our political dialogue in 2010,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
In Paul tried to refocus the debate on current issues, particularly President Obama’s health care law, which his election opponent, Democratic attorney general Jack Conway, has supported but which is overwhelmingly unpopular in Kentucky.
“I support the Civil Rights Act because I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere and halt the abhorrent practice of segregation and Jim Crow laws,” Paul said in a statement e-mailed to reporters.
“Even though this matter was settled when I was two, and no serious people are seeking to revisit it except to score cheap political points, I unequivocally state that I will not support any efforts to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Paul said.
But Paul, who holds strong libertarian views and is one of the Tea Party movement’s favorite candidates, also alluded to his constitutional concerns about the Civil Rights Act.
“As I have said in previous statements, sections of the Civil Rights Act were debated on Constitutional grounds when the legislation was passed. Those issues have been settled by federal courts in the intervening years,” Paul said.
Republican senators on Capitol Hill said they disagreed with Paul’s position on the extent to which personal property rights should be extended, but did not run away from Paul.
“I don’t know where he’s coming from on that,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. “I don’t want to put words in his mouth. It’s clear to me that he doesn’t support racism. But it’s also clear to me that the interstate commerce clause was rightly used by the Congress and the courts to prohibit people from being denied a place to sleep and a place to eat when they travel.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, said he did understand where Paul was coming from, but did not agree with him.
“I think that if you take a more libertarian view and stronger view about private property, you could take, you could reach the conclusion he reached. I don’t support that,” Sessions said.
Sessions called Paul a “very highly principled person” who has a “high standard of private property.”
Asked whether it was damaging for the Republican party to have to say they won’t repeal the Civil Rights Act, Sessions said, “I don’t think that’s a problem … I don’t think there’s any movement to reverse the Civil Rights Act.”
Sessions also commented on Paul’s position that he would like to get rid of the Department of Education.
“Let him come and argue for that. I’m not prepared to vote to abolish the education department at this moment,” Sessions said.
“Maybe later?” a reporter asked.
“We’ll su…,” Sessions said before stopping himself and making an unequivocal statement. “I’m not for abolishing the education department. But he is correct and the American people are correct: we can’t continue just what we’re spending on any of our programs. The size of our systemic deficit is so large that it is unsustainable.”
Other Republican senate leaders expressed more unease about Paul’s comments. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, who backed Paul’s opponent in the primary, did not answer when asked for comment on his way into his office.
But McConnell put out a statement that was less than warm toward Paul.
“Among Senator McConnell’s most vivid memories and most formative events in his career was watching his boss Sen. John Sherman Cooper help pull together the votes to break the filibuster and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart. “He has always considered the law a monumental achievement for the country and is glad to hear Dr. Paul supports it as well.”
However, Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican, sang Paul’s praises.
“If I were you guys I’d give him a little leeway,” Hatch told reporters. “He just got elected. It’s a tough thing for him to get in the middle of this cauldron.”
“I’ve been quite impressed with the man, I have to say. He led a tremendous campaign. He feels very deeply,” Hatch said.
Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, said of Paul that “as his campaign evolves, and it will, he is going to have to have a conversation with the people of Kentucky about all the issues.”
“I do think that the issues that he’s speaking to, spending, borrowing, are resonating powerfully across the country. You saw that in Kentucky and in other elections. The other positions that he adopts he’ll have to answer for,” Thune said.
In an interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, Paul admitted that it was politically unwise to appear on Rachel Maddow’s TV program on MSNBC. He told Ingraham that his opponents and critics had “unleashed some of the loony left on me.”
“The problem with Rachel and most people from the left is they want to make this an issue about you supporting abhorrent practices which I don’t support,” Paul said.
In his statement, Paul tried to focus the debate on the health care law.
“This much is clear: The federal government has far overreached in its power grabs,” Paul said. “Just look at the recent national health care schemes, which my opponent supports. The federal government, for the first time ever, is mandating that individuals purchase a product.”
“The federal government is out of control, and those who love liberty and value individual and state’s rights must stand up to it,” Paul said.
On Wednesday night, Paul told Maddow the following:
Maddow: Do you think that a private business has a right to say that ‘We don’t serve black people?’
Paul: I’m not in favor of any discrimination of any form. I would never belong to any club that excluded anybody for race. We still do have private clubs in America that can discriminate based on race. But do discriminate.
But I think what’s important in this debate is not getting into any specific gotcha on this, but asking the question ‘What about freedom of speech?’ Should we limit speech from people we find abhorrent. Should we limit racists from speaking. I don’t want to be associated with those people, but I also don’t want to limit their speech in any way in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior because that’s one of the things that freedom requires is that we allow people to be boorish and uncivilized, but that doesn’t mean we approve of it…
Maddow: … How about desegregating lunch counters?
Paul: Well what it gets into then is if you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant even though the owner of the restaurant says ‘well no, we don’t want to have guns in here’ the bar says ‘we don’t want to have guns in here because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each-other.’ Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant? These are important philosophical debates but not a very practical discussion…
Watch the Maddow interview from Wednesday night here: