Today, a Republican senator gave a speech at historically black college, Howard University.
There will be many who scoff at Sen. Rand Paul, directing their Nelson Muntz laughs at the freshman from Kentucky. What did he think? These young, black voters were going to start voting Republican?! Tee hee, look at the silly man. But you don’t finish a long journey by letting people mock you out of taking the first step.
That’s what Paul did today. It wasn’t perfect. It likely didn’t turn a lot of voters. But it gave a young, minority audience mostly ideologically hostile to the idea of libertarianism a new face to put on right-of-center ideas. A man who came to them and answered their questions.
Paul is one of the best-suited members of the new Republican guard for this task for a couple of reasons. He’s very smart, articulates his philosophy well (even under duress and for hours on end), and his libertarian leanings give him some cred on several issues important to the community he was addressing. Skepticism about the drug war, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the infallibility of law enforcement is not something such audiences often see from even Democratic senators. Paul was able to bring a bit of that to the table in a genuine way, without pandering. As Mike Riggs notes, it was his first applause line of the day, after a bit of an overwrought protest revealed exactly what Republicans are up against in the perception department.
At Sen. Rand Paul’s speech to Howard University students Wednesday, the first round of applause went to the two student protesters who stood in front of the stage and unfurled a banner that read, “Howard University Does Not Support White Supremacy.” The first round of applause for Paul came 10 minutes or so into his prepared remarks, when the junior senator from Kentucky said, “We should not have laws that ruin the lives of young men and women who have committed no violence. That’s why I have introduced a bill to repeal federal mandatory minimum sentences.” Finally: clapping!
The line revealed a neat overlap between civil libertarians and Howard’s Democrat-leaning African American student body.
There were plenty of other moments that were met with silence or laughter. But I’d bet more than a handful of students left with the impression that Paul is a basically well-intentioned guy with whom they might even agree on one issue. That’s not a terrible outing. Charlie Spiering notes that Paul seemed less prepared than he should have been for some of the challenging questions he got.
Paul admitted that Republicans had failed to highlight the importance of their rich heritage of supporting civil rights, which was part of the reason he decided to give a speech.
Paul created a stir when he asked the students if they were aware that the NAACP was founded by Republicans – a line that the crowd apparently perceived as insulting.
The audience also laughed when Paul forgot the name of Edward Brooke when he tried to cite the black Massachusetts senator who was a graduate of Howard University.
Paul admitted that people told him he was either “brave or crazy” for speaking at a historically black college, especially after the controversial comments he made about the Civil Rights Act during an MSNBC interview with Rachel Maddow in 2010.
“Here I am a guy who once presumed to discuss a section of the Civil Rights Act,” Paul said, admitting that “it didn’t go so well.”
The audience, however, had this event in mind, as a student accused Paul during the Q-and-A session of believing in the federal government’s legal right to discriminate against individuals.
“I’ve never been against the Civil Rights Act,” Paul stated flatly in response. “Ever.”
After the audience was silent in response, the host of the event encouraged Paul to explain his position further, reminding him that “this was on tape.”
Paul responded that he was only concerned about certain portions of the Civil Rights Act that were beyond race.
His attempt to explain earned him a little bit of applause from the audience but it perhaps he should have been more prepared to address the topic.
Next time out, Paul will know to couch the civil rights issue in a different way. Even if right on facts, Republicans should be very careful about talking about the civil rights movement in a way that seems presumptuous, adopting long-past events as proof of their own dedication. When you’re introducing an idea that doesn’t jibe with what your audience has heard for decades, and is this emotional, it’s best to introduce it delicately.
One of my Twitter follows, Vision365, put it well in a conversation with one of his followers. He’s a black conservative in Atlanta, and obviously interested in reaching other black voters:
— Jason 🇻🇮 (@Vision365) April 11, 2013
— hcole (@hencole) April 11, 2013
But this is how politicians work out matters of tone and appealing to different audiences. They have to try. Learning to talk to new audiences takes practice.
And, Paul’s outing isn’t just important as outreach to minority voters. It’s important as a model for outreach to an entire generation of voters under 30, a greater proportion of which are minorities than in any other age group. Increasingly, the path to young voters is through minority communities. Kristen Soltis, a right-leaning pollster who studies young voters:
While 77% of voters overall in 2004 were white, only 68% of voters under age 30 were white. By 2008, that number was only 62%. Both African-Americans and Hispanics were found in higher proportions among young voters. In 2004, African-Americans made up 15% of young voters while making up 11% of voters overall; 13% of voters 18-29 were Hispanic compared to 8% of voters overall. By 2008 those numbers had increased, with African-Americans comprising 18% of voters 18-29 and with Hispanics comprising 14%.
Rosie Gray of Buzzfeed found Howard students quite skeptical of Paul, but appreciative of his visit:
Sope Aluko, a sophomore from Maryland, said, “I thought it was really interesting that he was trying to appeal to us.”
“Maybe he didn’t really tell us anything new,” Aluko said, noting that she was “taken aback” when Paul asked the audience if they knew that the NAACP was founded by Republicans (the question was met with a resounding “Yes!”).
But Aluko said she liked what Paul had to say about keeping first time drug offenders out of prison.
“I feel a little bit better about him now,” said Tasia Hawkins, a freshman from New York. “It was cute that he tried to research and show that he knows black history.”
Hawkins is “indifferent” toward Paul, she said, but added that she appreciates that he tried to clarify his stance on the Civil Rights Act.
“It says something, that he was able to come to Howard,” Hawkins said. She still doesn’t plan to vote Republican any time soon.
One student, political science major Shakei Haynes, said he was convinced enough by Paul’s speech that he would consider voting for him. Haynes voted for Obama in the last two presidential elections.
“I think he did a fantastic job relating to us,” Haynes said. “I think he brought a message that was very informative.”
And, finally, Paul runs into a questioner who doesn’t want a government to leave him alone, “but a government that’s going to help me.” There are plenty of people my age of this mindset, and simply repeating “get government out of the way” is not the way to win them over. It doesn’t connect with their everyday lives or their perception of government. Realizing that is the first step to changing the message into one that can work.
Republican candidates have too often made the mistake—implicitly and explicitly, as with the 47-percent video— of sending the message that they’ve written off large chunks of voters. That voters who may see government as a helpful force in some areas of their lives are somehow irredeemable or disqualified as Republican voters. Paul said the opposite today, with his characteristic low-key demeanor. One late night on the Senate floor, Paul inspired fellow members of the new Republican guard, and even some of the party’s veterans, to venture into bolder, new uncharted territory. Here’s hoping he did it again today.
Here’s the full text of Paul’s speech.