Rand Paul on voter ID: It's a matter of emphasis, not a matter of abandoning the policy

After two posts devoted to parsing what Paul believes about this issue, you deserve to hear it from the man himself. Here he is yesterday, via the Right Scoop, telling Hannity that voter ID belongs on the GOP’s policy stove but on the back burner with the heat turned down. Money quote:

PAUL: Like I say, I think both sides have made mistakes in…this issue. But it’s mainly in presentation and perception, not in reality. In the sense that, if Republicans are going to go around the country and this becomes a central theme and issue, you have to realize, rightly or wrongly, it is being perceived by some — and this is the point I was making and I think it’s still a valid point, that I’m trying to go out and say to African Americans ‘I want your vote and the Republican Party wants your vote’. If they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that showing their ID is an attempt to get them not to vote because they perceive it in the lineage of a time when it truly did happen through poll taxes and questioning to try and prevent people, if they perceive it that way, we have to be aware that the perception is out there and be careful about not so overdoing something that we further alienate a block of people we need to attract.

Re-read that last sentence. That’s basically the same rationale amnesty fans have used to justify comprehensive immigration reform. Latinos, the theory goes, are “deaf” to Republican policy proposals because they’ve been alienated by the GOP’s opposition to illegal immigration and some of the rhetoric (“self-deportation”) surrounding it. If you want to make inroads with them electorally, you need to get past that threshold obstacle. Likewise for voter ID and blacks, Paul’s saying. Note the difference in approach, though. In the case of Latinos and immigration, Republicans seem to have concluded that no amount of “messaging” is going to solve their problem. They need to change their policies, which explains why every Republican with national aspirations — Paul included — supports some sort of immigration overhaul that would make it easier for illegals to stay. In the case of voter ID, for whatever reason, Paul seems to have come to the opposite conclusion, that if he talks enough about sentencing reform for drug crimes and re-enfranchising nonviolent felons, he can continue to support voter ID and still win a higher-than-expected share of black votes. Whether you think that’s true or not depends on many variables — Paul’s retail skills, who his opponent is, Democratic counter-messaging to blacks about Paul’s view of the Civil Rights Act and his father’s newsletter, etc — but it raises the real possibility that Paul will eventually conclude, a la immigration, that the outreach barrier is insuperable unless and until the GOP changes its policy, not just its message. And that means abandoning voter ID entirely.

To return to a point I made yesterday, though, maybe all of this is less about Paul seriously believing that he can win black votes and more about re-branding himself for both the primaries and the general election. He was initially going to run as the right-winger in the race, I think, but now that Cruz has come on, he’s re-positioning as “a different kind of Republican.” That was always going to be an undertone of his campaign given his libertarian pedigree but now it’s become more of a major theme. Whether you’re a centrist Republican, “somewhat conservative,” or full-on tea partier, if you’re disgusted with the state of the GOP, Rand’s the guy who’s going to give you something different on pretty much everything except federal spending. (And given how much establishment Republicans have spent over the years, lower spending actually qualifies as something different too.) If he makes it through to the general election, Democrats will put all of their energy into kookifying him as the most retrograde politician in America, someone who wants to time-travel back to before the New Deal when it comes to the welfare state and back to before the Civil Rights Act on racial matters. Rand knows that’s coming, which is why his outreach to blacks is so dogged even though it’s all but certain to be futile: The gesture itself is politically useful to him down the road in reassuring whites that he’s not the gargoyle Democrats say he is, even if it doesn’t reassure blacks. To be honest, I think he’d be happy to jettison voter ID altogether in the interest of making that gesture more broadly if not for the fact that it’s a sort of litmus test in the GOP primaries. He needs some conservative votes to win. If he “evolves” on voter ID now to impress Democrats, righties will conclude that he can’t be trusted not to pander to them if elected and that’ll ruin him. So he’s leaving the issue on the stove. Just on very low heat.