Rand Paul reaches out at Howard: Can the GOP court blacks without changing policies?

Opinion

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

The decision by Rand Paul, one of the leaders of the Tea Party and the man who once famously debated the propriety of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to speak at Howard University was surprising and even courageous, as he faced a crowd of about 100 students from the school who disagreed with him on nearly on every issue.

But the actual words of the likely 2016 presidential candidate illustrated the surprising and unlikely-to-work strategy Republicans are taking in courting the black vote: just showing up.

The GOP has completely reversed course on immigration in an attempt to woo Hispanic voters, embracing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants only months after Mitt Romney campaigned on “self-deportation.” But with blacks, there is little sign of any tactical shift, even as Republicans have won less than 12 percent of the black vote in the last four presidential elections.

Rand Paul channels Mitt Romney

In his hour-long speech at Howard, Paul, like Romney in a speech to the NAACP last year, articulated almost the exact same positions Republicans have for the last decade in their unsuccessful attempts to win black voters: touting the virtue of school vouchers to remove African-American students from failing schools, reminding the audience of the Republican Party’s history in ending slavery and other civil rights advances before the 1960’s and arguing Democratic policies have not helped improve black economic prospects, as African-American unemployment remains double that of whites.

“The Democratic promise is tangible and puts food on the table, but too often doesn’t lead to jobs or meaningful success,” he said. Paul added, “I would argue that the objective evidence shows that big government is not a friend to African-Americans.”

Much of his rhetoric was the same used by former Republican National Committee chairmen Ken Mehlman and Michael Steele, both of whom made black outreach a centerpiece of their tenures as head of the party and then watched as the GOP was trounced among African-American voters.

In defense of voter ID

And like Raffi Williams, the man the RNC recently tapped to lead black outreach, Paul defended controversial “voter ID” laws that the Obama administration and civil rights advocates have cast as unfairly targeting minority and low-income voters.

“It’s important to note in the history what happened. Democrats  in the South worked very, very very hard, almost all Democrats, and they did have tests at the polls,” he said, referring to poll tests that discriminated against blacks in South and were outlawed in the 1960’s.

He added, “I think if you liken using a driver’s license to literacy tests, you demean the horror of what happened in the 40’s and 50’s …. No Republican is in favor of that.  Showing your driver’s license to have an honest election I think is not unreasonable.”

On more than five occasions in the speech, Paul highlighted civil rights achievements by Republicans before 1960, noting, for example, “most of the founders of the NAACP were Republicans.”

A peace offering on drug crime sentencing

Paul notably broke from traditional GOP orthodoxy in one instance, calling for the elimination of federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, arguing “we should not take away anyone’s future over one mistake.”

“Let me tell you the story of two young men. Both of them made mistakes. Both of them were said to have used illegal drugs,” he said. “One of them was white and from a privileged background. He had important friends, and an important father and an important grandfather. You know, the kind of family who universities name dorms after.”

He added, “This family had more money than you could could count. Drugs or no drugs, his family could buy justice if he needed it. The other man also used illegal drugs, but he was of mixed race and from a single parent household, with little money. He didn’t have important friends or a wealthy father. Now, you might think I’m about to tell you a story about racism in America, where the rich white kid gets off and the black kid goes to jail. It could well be, and often is, but that’s not this story. In this story, both young men were extraordinarily lucky. Both young men were not caught. They weren’t imprisoned Instead, they both went on to become presidents of the United States. Barack Obama and George Bush were lucky.”

The rift on drugs aside, Paul’s views differed little from what Romney offered in November for African-Americans. And while political parties rarely make huge changes on policy issues in only a few months, the GOP actually is the midst of a broad reexamination to widen its appeal to other blocs of the electorate. Wary of losing the votes of women, party strategists are urging conservative Republicans to stop talking about barring abortions even in cases of rape and incest, as two unsuccessful GOP Senate candidates did last fall. The GOP is becoming more accepting of gay marriage and immigration reform in hopes of winning young and Hispanic voters.

Paul, unlike past Republican candidates, made his appeal to black African-Americans very earlier in his potential presidential campaign, almost three years before he would be on a presidential ballot. But the key question remains: is showing up enough?

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr