Rand Paul fails history at Howard University

OPINION - During a speech at Howard University, Rand Paul made his case for blacks supporting the Republican Party. Unfortunately, he was pitching a GOP that hasn't existed for more than 100 years...

During a speech at Howard University on Wednesday, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul made his case for black Americans supporting the Republican Party. Unfortunately, he was pitching a Republican Party that hasn’t existed for more than 100 years.

Paul, like many Republicans seeking to revive the party of Lincoln’s fortunes with a black electorate that routinely votes more than 90 percent for Democrats, used the 19th century liberal, anti-slavery version of his party to argue that today’s GOP is focused on freedom and individual liberty, respectful of the aspirations of all Americans regardless of race, and on a yeoman’s quest for equal opportunity for all.

Of course, that’s not the way most black Americans would describe today’s Republican Party, which appears much more fixated on lowering taxes on the very rich, slashing social programs that help the poor, children and the elderly, opposing affirmative action and gun control (and the Voting Rights Act), controlling women’s reproduction and passing voter ID laws that just happen to make it harder for black, brown and young people — read: Democrats — to vote, and which often seems more driven to obstruct President Barack Obama than to govern.

Paul got ample credit from members of the media, and from some of the students at the event, for showing up at Howard, which is not surprising. The media loves a “fish out of water” story. And that may have been his real goal. Paul is probably running for president in 2016, and he can use the visit to cement his bona fides as a “maverick” willing to take the party’s message into hostile territory.

But Paul cannot realistically have thought that his gambit would win over black audiences with substance, since as theGrio’s political editor Perry Bacon pointed out, Republicans have chosen to woo Hispanic voters with policy shifts on immigration, but are offering African-Americans only history lessons.

And they’re flawed history lessons at that.

Getting the history wrong

Paul spent the fist 20 minutes or so of his talk lecturing the students about the history of the civil rights struggle of black Americans, from slavery through Jim Crow, calling that history synonymous with the history of the Republican Party. He said that essentially, every bad thing that has ever been done to African-Americans at the hands of white Americans was perpetrated by Democrats. He even cited Dixiecrats in his defense of current voter ID laws.

And he claimed — in answer to a student’s question and with a straight face — that there is no difference between the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, who launched a civil war that ultimately ended slavery and who signed the 13th Amendment, and that of Ronald Reagan, who launched his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi with a speech on “states’ rights,” a move not likely to have been meant to send a supportive message to black people, and whose campaign popularized the term “welfare queens.”

Paul would have those students, and African-Americans in general, believe that the 19th century Republican Party and the party of George W. Bush, and Mitt “47 percent” Romney, or for that matter, the Senator’s father, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, of those rather racially-insensitive newsletters that warned of a coming race war, are one and the same. “We just don’t talk about it enough,” Paul said of his party’s failure to connect with the progeny of Lincoln’s freedmen.

The Senator even denied that he ever wavered in his support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, saying he’s “never been against the Civil Rights Act, ever.”

This despite his having told a Louisville, Kentucky newspaper, NPR, and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in 2010 that he opposed the provisions in the act that forced private businesses to serve clients — read, black patrons — that they didn’t want to, and that opposing government-mandated integration has been his position for more than a decade.

Paul’s  revisionist history didn’t just extend to his own well-documented views. American history itself got a dose of what Slate‘s resident Libertarian Dave Weigel called “Randsplaining.” He is certainly not the first Republican to pretend not to know that after the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in the mid-1960s, and in the wake of Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy,” the GOP absorbed the southern Democrats — known as “Dixiecrats” — who were staunch opponents of integration and civil rights for African-Americans. He likely won’t be the last. But that doesn’t make him right.

Don’t believe me? Ask a history professor.