Rand Paul, Senate candidate from Kentucky and the first official, openly Tea Party-affiliated candidate in U.S. politics, has caused quite a stir with his comments on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And in typical fashion his opponent has seized on these remarks and will likely exploit them to his benefit throughout his campaign.
But reading through the transcript linked to above, it seems pretty clear that Paul is applying libertarian ideas in a philosophical way, not trying to overturn this landmark legislation. Even in the transcript it is obvious that he senses a trap, that these remarks will come back to haunt him. He gives all sorts of qualifiers, hesitating and stalling before answering the question.
What Paul, as a libertarian, likely believes is that market forces would have inspired business owners to open their restaurants to people of all races once they discovered how profitable it would be, and that, therefore, the legislation was ultimately unnecessary. Morality is a market force after all, as is evidenced by the growing fair trade industry.
But it was a gaffe, nonetheless; a result of ideological consistency trumping political reality. I think David Brooks put it well when he explained, “When you have got insurgents, when you have got outsiders, they come in, A, not knowing when to shut up, and, B, sometimes with weird ideas.” Basically, Rand Paul wasn’t thinking like a politician when he made these remarks. And that will probably come back to bite him.
I don’t agree with Rand Paul, or what I assume Rand Paul was trying to say. He doesn’t give us a time line for when these market forces would take effect and fails to account for the fact that people are not always driven by money. Some racists, I believe, would go out of business before serving an African-American.
But I do think it’s a dirty tactic to seize on one controversial statement and exploit it over and over again for political gain. Sonia Sotomayor’s now infamous ‘wise Latina’ comment nearly cost her her seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. The link to controversial remarks by Reverend Jeremiah Wright almost cost Obama the presidency (though the unanimously Republican, almost exclusively white, church I grew up in also taught, in so many words, that God would damn America). Howard Dean didn’t even have to say anything to ruin his political career. Even as I typed his name into my search bar, ‘howard dean scream’ appeared as the first suggestion, just before ‘howard dean health care.’
After all of this, Democrats might be chomping at the bit to re-quote Rand Paul into the ground. But is that the right thing to do? Do we honestly believe this man wants to overturn the Civil Rights Act? Or do we just want to win badly enough that we will exploit any weakness?
On the other hand, I do think it is fair to press Paul on his beliefs and the practical manifestation of his Libertarian ideology, especially in terms of how it squares with traditional Republican views on issues such as Social Security, Gay Marriage, Immigration and the War on Drugs. I suspect that Paul will ruffle a few feathers on the Right as well as the Left as we dig deeper into his ideas. And it will be interesting to see how many Tea Partiers truly grasp everything that comes along with a “small government” and whether, once they’ve grasped it, they will still want it.
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