Meet the GOP’s main man for minority outreach

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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Black History Month is over, but Republican outreach to African-American voters is only just beginning.

Don’t expect these overtures to have much success, writes Peter Beinart. The party’s effort to court black voters “coincides with a GOP push to decrease the number of blacks who vote at all.” He cites Republican “views on early voting, voter ID, and the voting rights of ex-prisoners.”

Days after Beinart’s column appeared, Republican Sen. Rand Paul returned home to Kentucky to testify in support of restoring voting rights to some non-violent felons. Paul had praised a House committee for advancing the voting rights measure in January.

“I applaud the House Elections, Constitutional Amendments & Intergovernmental Affairs Committee for passing House Bill 70, a constitutional amendment which would restore the right to vote for non-violent felons,” Paul said in a statement. “A government of, by and for the people is only possible with a free right to vote.”

On one of his next trips back to Kentucky, Paul celebrated the accreditation of a historically black college in Louisville. “Simmons College has a rich history that stretches over a hundred years,” he said. “I’m proud of the graduates who have fought for advancement, equality and for really the only justice that can’t be denied, and that’s education.”

Around this time, the NAACP expressed interest in Paul’s “Economic Freedom Zones” proposal. “We’d love to talk with him about it and work with him on it,” the civil rights group’s interim president said on C-SPAN.

Paul’s idea was to attract private investment to Detroit and similar urban areas, “enterprise zones on steroids.” He also advocated school choice, a fairer criminal justice system and reforming mandatory minimum sentences.

When other Republicans criticized Attorney General Eric Holder’s initiative to address racial disparities in drug sentencing, Paul joined Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake in voting for the Smarter Sentencing Act.

Is there a Republican doing more to change the party’s image — and solve government-created problems — in communities of color than Rand Paul? The question is sure to elicit dismissive eye rolls.

Don’t you remember the dust-up about Paul and the Civil Rights Act of 1964? His controversial former aide? His father’s newsletters?

A long New York Times piece on “Rand Paul’s Mixed Inheritance,” co-written by the author of The Death of Conservatism, spells out the now-familiar case in exhaustive detail.

But at some point, doesn’t what Paul is doing in 2014 matter more than what Murray Rothbard (who died in 1995) thought about the Civil War decades ago? Does the impolitic observation that a civil rights law Paul supports has costs as well as benefits outweigh actions to ameliorate the costs of the war on drugs?

Conservative Republicans have cared about these issues — and courted black voters — before. The Christian right has a longstanding interest in prison reform. Mainstream conservatives have pushed school choice since the Reagan years, when Jack Kemp was already selling enterprise zones. William F. Buckley Jr. went further than Paul has yet on drug legalization.

But it’s hard to think of a major Republican politician who has taken up this whole package, including the the racial implications of the federal drug war, before Paul.

Moreover, Paul has worked with “liberty movement Republicans” and fellow tea party conservatives like Cruz and Lee in trying to making this part of the Republican brand. Orlando Watson, the Republican National Committee’s communications director for black media, came from Paul’s staff.

While Kemp fought heroically to make the GOP more attractive to minorities, there were times — like the 1996 vice-presidential debate — when he seemed to revel in an imagined status as the only non-racist Republican. Paul has not played this card.

That doesn’t mean Paul’s outreach has always gone smoothly. Or that his support for deep spending cuts will be an easy sell to most black or Hispanic voters. Or even that his policies in this area are always the right ones. Personally, I think that while Paul’s heart is in the right place on immigration, Barbara Jordan was right on the policy.

What is clear to any intellectually honest person, however, is that the issues and ideas that animated Ron Paul’s two presidential campaigns — and attracted cheering throngs of young people — are far removed from the racist content in the old discredited newsletters or the alleged strategy behind them.

The younger Paul, by denouncing Ted Nugent, defending the voting rights of ex-felons, worrying about sentencing guidelines that disproportionately hurt blacks and calling for a “more welcoming” Republican Party, is even further removed.

It’s no coincidence that the people most interested in living in the past are MSNBC liberals who think conservatism in general is substantially racist, seeing little difference between neo-Confederates and neoconservatives, and conservatives who disagree with the Pauls on foreign policy.

Maybe the country will decide Paulian Republicans still aren’t far removed enough from the newsletter era. But a younger generation of libertarian-leaning Republican activists is coming of age, filled with people who have never uttered a racially insensitive word.

One day arguing against their efforts to reform drug laws by quoting what their elders said about Abraham Lincoln will sound as obtuse as arguing against Barack Obama by pointing out that Jefferson Davis was a Democrat.

W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.