Rand Paul dares to engage on race and deserves credit for it

OPINION - What I give Rand Paul credit for is trying to reestablish credibility by getting outside of his comfort zone and attempting to establish a conversation, a relationship on common ground; and from there, to build a partnership that will benefit all concerned...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Rand Paul, the upstart Senator from Kentucky who beat the odds and the GOP Establishment in 2010, has been at the center of or leading much of the political conversation both nationally and within the GOP.

From his 13- hour standing room only filibuster (ostensibly in protest of the nomination of John O. Brennan to lead the Central Intelligence Agency) to argue that drone strikes should not be used on American soil against Americans suspected of terrorism to his recent spat with Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey over “foreign policy ideology”, shows just how much Mr. Paul has gotten underneath the skin of the Administration and not too few Establishment Republicans.

But the sleeper moment for Senator Paul was his visit to the historic campus of Howard University in April. To be sure, there was so much that was wrong about his approach to the students, but there were also some important glimmers of what was right about his going in the first place.

I’m reminded of the scripture passage “So the king ordered Daniel to be brought and cast into the lions den.” Well, Rand Paul’s appearance before the students of Howard University was perhaps not as dramatic, but one could not help but notice a similarity. And like Daniel, Rand Paul survived.

But there were some moments in which the Senator’s survival was in doubt. Forgetting the name of fellow Republican Senator Edward Brooke, a Howard graduate and the first African American popularly elected to the United States Senate; and “quizzing” the students about their own history (“did you know Republicans founded the NAACP?”; and, not to mention his own cryptic and contradictory statements on the Civil Rights Act, spoke volumes about how ill-prepared the Senator was to address an intelligent and sophisticated gathering of Black students. I’d be curious to know which black Republicans the Senator or his staff spoke to in preparation for his speech.

Many of the political and media Elites on the Left (the lions in my little political drama) ridiculed not only the speech, but the fact the senator even showed up. What else should we expect from lions? Their job is simple: attack and eat their prey.

However, Rand Paul wasn’t at Howard for them. He was there for the students—for good or bad, he wanted to take the time to start a conversation. Maybe not all but some students sensed something different in Rand Paul’s appearance and what he had to say. As one student put it at the time, “African-Americans are born with hatred of everything outside the Democratic Party, with very closed eyes. At least he put in the effort and came here, and that counts for something.”

And it counted for Rand Paul too.

So why raise this point some four months later?  Because as we’ve seen in his other entanglements, the senator realizes that he’s not in Kentucky anymore; and that whether it is next year’s congressional elections or the presidential race in 2016, it will take more than the typical political rhetoric or promises that sound good on paper for Republicans to regain the respect and support of voters.

What many of the GOP Elites misunderstand about Rand Paul is what so many get: he’s willing to stand in the moment and take on the fight. Whether it’s on the Senate floor or on a stage at a preeminent black university, Rand Paul does something very few Republicans, nationally or locally, ever do: engage.  So it was at Howard University. While awkward and at times betraying a certain ignorance, Mr. Paul’s words nonetheless established an opportunity for dialogue.

There was much about this visit that crystallized for me how the GOP and my community very often miss real opportunities to communicate with each other. As I emphasized as National Chairman, GOP “outreach” (I hate that term) often times misses the mark because it’s more about a pat on the back or a photo-op with smiling black faces. So why should African-Americans take any of it seriously?

What I give Rand Paul credit for is trying to reestablish credibility by getting outside of his comfort zone and attempting to establish a conversation, a relationship on common ground; and from there, to build a partnership that will benefit all concerned.

But, let’s not put too much on his visit nor make it out to be some miraculous breakthrough in GOP-African American relations. The way I see it, his was the first baby step in many necessary baby steps GOP candidates and presidential hopefuls will have to make. After all old loyalties and attitudes die hard—on both sides.

Every once and a while I like to put on my rose colored glasses and see the world as it should be. In this world, I see African-Americans having a legitimate seat at both political tables. In this world, I see both political parties recognizing that their viability is inextricably intertwined with the success of the African-American community and acting accordingly. But in order for this world to become reality, a baby step has to be taken.

What I see in the early movements of Senator Paul, are the baby steps necessary to make his possible entrance into the 2016 presidential sweepstakes a real challenge for a Republican Party used to playing by the same old rules with the same old players. And if his filibuster, visit to Howard University or sparring with Governor Christie are any indications, Rand Paul may very well prove to be a new player with his own set of rules