Rand Paul and Civil Rights: A Rookie Mistake Feeds a Left-Wing Smear.

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Rand Paul was 1 when Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Now 47, he is the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate from Kentucky, his first ever foray into politics. To his evident surprise, the hypothetical question of how he would have voted in 1964 has been drawing a lot of attention.

Politico's Ben Smith characterizes as "evasive" this response Paul gave when asked the question by National Public Radio (we've corrected Smith's transcription errors):

"What I've always said is, I'm opposed to institutional racism, and I would have--if I was alive at the time, I think--had the courage to march with Martin Luther King to overturn institutional racism, and I see no place in our society for institutional racism," he said in response to a first question about the act.

"You would have marched with Martin Luther King but voted with Barry Goldwater?" asked an interviewer.

"I think it's confusing in a lot of cases in what's actually in the Civil Rights Case (sic)," Paul replied. "A lot of things that were actually in the bill I'm actually in favor of. I'm in favor of--everything with regards to ending institutional racism. So I think there's a lot to be desired in the Civil Rights--and indeed the truth is, I haven't read all through it, because it was passed 40 years ago and hadn't been a real pressing issue on the campaign on whether I'm going to vote for the Civil Rights Act."

In an update to his post, Smith notes that it wasn't the first time Paul was asked the question:

Paul articulated his view on the Civil Rights Act in an interview with the editorial board of the Louisville Courier-Journal. . . .

Paul explained that he backed the portion of the Civil Rights Act banning discrimination in public places and institutions, but that he thinks private businesses should be permitted to discriminate by race.

"I like the Civil Rights Act in the sense that it ended discrimination in all public domains, and I'm all in favor of that," he said. "I don't like the idea of telling private business owners. . . ."

Smith is not the only commentator to accuse Paul of being "evasive" or refusing to give a "straight answer." This criticism is absurd. The politically wise answer would have been "yes"--a straight answer in form, but an evasive one in substance. Answering the way he did was a rookie mistake--or, to put it more charitably, a demonstration that Paul is not a professional politician.

Taken at face value, the question itself--How would you have voted if you had been in the Senate as an infant?--is silly. It is a reasonable question only if it is understood more broadly, as an inquiry into Paul's political philosophy. The question within the question is: How uncompromising are you in your adherence to small-government principles?

Paul gave his answer: Pretty darn uncompromising--uncompromising enough to take a position that is not only politically embarrassing but morally dubious by his own lights, as evidenced by this transcript from the Courier-Journal interview, provided by the left-wing siteThinkProgress.org:

Interviewer: But under your philosophy, it would be OK for Dr. King not to be served at the counter at Woolworths?

Paul: I would not go to that Woolworths, and I would stand up in my community and say that it is abhorrent, um, but, the hard part--and this is the hard part about believing in freedom--is, if you believe in the First Amendment, for example--you have too, for example, most good defenders of the First Amendment will believe in abhorrent groups standing up and saying awful things. . . . It's the same way with other behaviors. In a free society, we will tolerate boorish people, who have abhorrent behavior.

Again, Paul could have given a "straight" answer to the question--a flat "no"--that made clear his personal disapproval of discrimination while evading what was really a question about his political philosophy. Far from being evasive, Paul has shown himself to be both candid and principled to a fault.

We do mean to a fault. In this matter, Paul seems to us to be overly ideological and insufficiently mindful of the contingencies of history. Although we are in accord with his general view that government involvement in private business should be kept to a minimum, in our view the Civil Rights Act's restrictions on private discrimination were necessary in order to break down a culture of inequality that was only partly a matter of oppressive state laws. On the other hand, he seeks merely to be one vote of 100 in the Senate. An ideologically hardheaded libertarian in the Senate surely would do the country more good than harm.

It's possible, though, that Paul's eccentric views on civil rights will harm the Republican Party by feeding the left's claims that America is a racist country and the GOP is a racist party. Certainly that's what Salon's Joan Walsh is hoping. Here are her comments on a Rand interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow:

You've got to watch the whole interview. At the end, Paul seemed to understand that he's going to be explaining his benighted civil rights views for a long, long time--but he seemed to blame Maddow. "You bring up something that is really not an issue . . . a red herring, it's a political ploy . . . and that's the way it will be used," he complained at the end of the interview. Whether the Civil Rights Act should have applied to private businesses--"not really an issue," says Tea Party hero Rand Paul.

It's going to become increasingly clear that the Tea Party movement wants to revoke the Great Society, the New Deal and the laws that were the result of the civil rights movement. Paul may be right that his views are "not really an issue" with his Tea Party supporters, although I have to think some of them won't enjoy watching him look like a slippery politician as he fails, over and over, to answer Maddow's questions directly.

When Paul says this "is really not an issue," he is speaking in the present tense. It is quite clear that he means that the Civil Rights Act, which has been the law for nearly 46 years, is politically settled; there is no movement to revoke it. In this, he is correct. Walsh's assertion that this is what the tea-party movement seeks is either a fantasy or a lie.

It's a curious role reversal: Rand Paul is a politician; Joan Walsh is a journalist. He is honest, perhaps too honest for his own good. She is playing the part of the dishonest demagogue.