There’s no question that Rand Paul has the knack of staging political theater that gets the media’s attention. But Adam Serwer argues that he really doesn’t deserve any credit for his speech yesterday defending the Republican Party’s civil rights record:
Also strange is the presumption that somehow Paul was doing something risky or brave by speaking at a historically black college. Howard University is not a Greyhound Bus station at midnight. It is way past time for pundits to retire the notion that white politicians deserve extra credit for being willing to talk to a room full of black people. This is, as one Republican once put it, the soft bigotry of low expectations. The history of Republican politics and the conservative movement means that a black audience has every right to be skeptical of the GOP, and that the burden is rightfully on that party to reconcile with black voters. Politicians are supposed to reach out to voters, not the other way around. No more gold stars for attendance.
In fairness, politicians often get a little extra credit for speaking in front of a hostile audience. But Adam is right: there was really nothing especially brave about what Paul did. I mean, he spoke for about half an hour and then answered questions for half an hour. Hell, I can’t count the number of half hours I’ve spent fielding caustic questions from resellers who were pissed off about my latest marketing brainstorm—and I’ll bet they were a lot less polite than the Howard students. But I didn’t especially feel like I’d been through combat or anything. It’s just something you do.
In any case, I’m genuinely stumped about the particular conservative meme that Paul was promoting to the Howard students. His story, basically, is that Republicans were really good on civil rights and Democrats were really bad during the century after the Civil War. And sure, there’s a certain amount of truth to that. Enough for a political schtick, anyway.
But what’s the point of saying this? Everyone knows it. And everyone knows that Democrats very bravely destroyed their own electoral coalition in the 60s by repudiating racism and losing the South. It’s one of the party’s finest moments. And everyone—except Republicans, who consistently refuse to acknowledge this—knows that the GOP very cynically and deliberately hoovered up as much of that racist vote as they could after Democrats abandoned it. This is not rocket science. It’s recent history, and everyone knows it. It’s why blacks vote against the Republican Party at 90+ percent levels.
If you don’t want to address that recent history, fine. Who can blame you? But what’s the point of addressing your party’s civil rights history at all if you don’t also address its history after 1965? You can’t possibly think it will get you anywhere, can you? On the contrary: it just makes you look cynical and smug. I don’t get it.