Rand Paul Learns from His Mistakes

A senator adapts.


Here's an anecdote worth noting in the New Republic Rand Paul profile that Matt Welch noted earlier today. It begins by recounting Paul's not-so-smooth appearance at Howard University two months ago:

Paul, spiritedly quoting Toni Morrison, informed the students that Republicans had once been the party of the abolitionists and Democrats the party of Jim Crow. He inquired, "How many of you, if I were to have said, 'Who do you think the founders of the NAACP were,' did you think they were Republicans or Democrats?"

Unfortunately for Paul, the students did know that the founders were Republicans and were not shy about letting him know that they knew. "Which Republican Party are you talking about?" one asked. "The party of Lincoln or the party of Nixon?"…Most students I spoke to described his visit as "condescending." "You're coming to Howard University, and you're telling us about the history of black people?" one young woman said.

It was a wince-worthy moment. But apparently Paul learned from his mistakes. The New Republic piece continues:

two days later in Louisville, Paul made a less-publicized visit to Simmons, another historically black college, and this time, he took a humbler approach. He turned down the podium, preferring to sit in a circle with students, professors, and members of the community. "I want to learn from you," he said. For the most part, he avoided the intertwining histories of African Americans and the Republican Party. Instead, he turned most questions back on the questioners, asking politely for their opinions.

And rather than try to prove that the Republican Party had been good to blacks once upon a time, he focused on how the Republican Party could be good to them today. He talked about decriminalizing drug offenses and getting rid of the mandatory sentencing minimums that put so many young black men in jail. He talked about fixing the local school system, about not abolishing Pell grants "as long as it's in the context of spending what you have." To approving nods, he talked about how urban renewal had really meant "urban destruction" and about how "they tore down a lot of black businesses so people would go to white stores." He found that this crowd, if not totally convinced, was receptive. Though he would still not give them a definitive answer on his position on the Civil Rights Act, he did say that he believed federal intervention had been justified. "I'm not a firm believer in democracy," he explained. "It gave us Jim Crow."

The democracy line is strange, or at least it sounds that way out of context. (I assume he was trying to make a point about minority rights and majority rule. But the Jim Crow states weren't exactly an example of democracy in action, considering all their efforts to prevent black people from voting.) Nor am I entirely sure what the Pell grants line was supposed to mean. (Again, I would like to know more about the context.) But the shift does reveal an openness to feedback. And the revised approach—particularly the decision to highlight what Paul wants do for black voters, a subject that wasn't absent from the Howard speech but got buried beneath the history talk—seems far sharper than what he tried the first time around.

The change is a sign, as the New Republic writer notes, that Paul is a politician who knows how to adapt. It also suggests that the senator knows he'll be dogged in 2016 by his comments about the Civil Rights Act, and that he wants to go on the offensive here rather than just play defense. Paul-watchers can expect this strand of the story to keep developing.