Rand Paul, Racism, and Prison

Paul has had a busy summer trying to roll back mandatory minimum sentencing, bar federal prosecution of medical marijuana patients, and restrain civil forfeiture laws.


Rand Paul/Flickr

Norm Ornstein is one of those Washington "centrist" lifers whom the commentariat loves to deploy against the hard-line partisans allegedly fouling our national discourse. A liberal at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Ornstein helped craft the speech-squelching Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which the Supreme Court, mercifully, has largely overturned. In April 2012, along with fellow centrist think-tanker Thomas Mann, Ornstein wearily declared in a Washington Post op-ed, "Let's just say it: The Republicans are the problem." In an October 2013 interview with public broadcaster Diane Rehm, he asserted that racism played a "significant" role in the Republican Party's "ruthlessly pragmatic attempt to delegitimize a Democratic president," and in July of this year, he fretted in National Journal that "extremism" has become "mainstream" in the modern GOP.

"I am not suggesting that the lunatics or extremists have won," Ornstein wrote. "Most Republicans in the Senate are not, to use John McCain's term, 'wacko birds,' and most Republicans in office would at least privately cringe at some of the wild ideas and extreme views."

And which beyond-the-pale beliefs are those? In addition to the usual nonsensical quotes about slavery and science that we've come to expect from wild-eyed GOP state senators you've never heard of, Ornstein also included opposition to Common Core curriculum standards, the desire to abolish the Federal Reserve, and the reluctance to impose government penalties against parents who refuse vaccines (a reticence enshrined in almost every state's legal code, in the form of sanction-free opt-outs).

But even more nonsensical than Ornstein's conflation of perfectly arguable policy positions with "extremism" was his massively reductive yet distressingly familiar attempt to sort all elected Republicans into two bins marked "crazy" and "rational." This has been a staple of political journalism since the rise of the Tea Party in 2009, and it has contributed to one of the biggest missed stories of this young century.

When John McCain used the phrase wacko bird in March 2013, he was referring most directly to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the leading member of the 2010 Tea Party class of elected officials. (Paul's 2011 campaign memoir was titled The Tea Party Goes to Washington, and not once during his election night victory speech did he utter the word Republican.) If the Tea Party was commonly portrayed upon its arrival on the national scene as a racist spasm against a black president-in January 2010, then-MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann called it "perhaps the saddest collection of people who don't want to admit why they really hate since the racists of the South in the '60s insisted they were really just concerned about states' rights"-then Paul was a prime candidate to be fitted for a Grand Dragon hat.

First came his infamous post-election interview with Rachel Maddow, in which the senator-elect bumbled through his reservations about-and ultimate support for-the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Then came the July 2013 revelation that a key Paul staffer (who soon resigned) had a past as a pro-Confederate shock jock. For consumers who get their political news from MSNBC or The Huffington Post, or The New York Times, the narrative was simple. "Rand Paul," as Bill Moyers put it this April, "has a race problem."

But classifying the Kentucky senator, and the movement within the GOP he represents, as crazy and possibly racist quickly produces a dissonance too loud for even some career Washington centrists. "Paul is doing something new, and even potentially boundary-breaking, in his outreach to African-Americans," National Journal columnist Ronald Brownstein observed in August. "He has moved beyond the economic arguments that anchored previous outreach efforts to embrace criminal-justice reform with a passion unprecedented in modern Republican politics. Few Democrats, in fact, have matched the fervor of Paul's case against drug laws that have disproportionately incarcerated minority men."

Paul has had a busy summer trying to roll back the excesses of the drug war. In June, he introduced a bill restoring federal voting rights to nonviolent felons who have served out their sentences, an effort he rightly characterized as having far more potential impact for voter re-enfranchisement than the voter ID skirmishes that Democrats and Republicans tend to obsess over. In July, he teamed up with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to co-sponsor the Redeem Act, which would limit the use of solitary confinement, give nonviolent criminals the ability to strike or seal their criminal records (so that they can more easily get a post-prison job), and encourage states to stop trying minors as adults.

The Tea Party senator is trying to roll back mandatory minimum sentencing, bar federal prosecution of medical marijuana patients, and restrain civil forfeiture laws that allow cops to seize property without charging its owner with a crime. "I say enough's enough," Paul told the Urban League in July. "I won't sit idly by and watch our criminal justice system continue to consume, confine and define our young men. I say we take a stand and fight for justice now."

This is not some case of a lone politician going rogue. Plenty of Tea Party types within the GOP, often working hand in hand with backbench Democrats across the aisle, have contributed to this happy if overdue moment in which politicians are finally showing a willingness to reform a criminal justice system swollen beyond recognition after four decades of "tough on crime" policies.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a staunch Paul ally, is at the forefront of legalizing hemp. (He once ate a hemp bar on the TV show I co-host.) Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) has voted against his party's attempts to limit President Barack Obama's authority to grant clemency to nonviolent drug offenders. Why, it's almost as if the same people who want to reduce the government's power to spend your money also want to limit its ability to lock you in prison for life!

As Rand Paul continues to top the GOP 2016 presidential field, the heightened scrutiny will make it increasingly difficult to cling to the fiction of his allegedly atavistic views on race. Politico this summer noted that Paul's African-American support in Kentucky was polling at 29 percent, more than double what he received at the ballot box in 2010. Even such vein-popping liberals as MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell, who in the wake of Paul's March 2013 drone filibuster slammed the senator as "ridiculous, sick, paranoid," has been singing the senator's praises: "It's fascinating to see Rand Paul doing this, and doing it, by the way, more eloquently than most Democrats, who stay away from this subject."

Criminal justice reform wasn't the issue that motivated the center-right grassroots to oppose the Troubled Assets Relief Program in 2008, the stimulus in 2009, or Obamacare during those 2009 town hall meetings. The Tea Party wave election was not about mandatory minimums or the right to eat hemp bars.

But some of the impulses toward these disparate issues proceed from the same basic insight about the proper and improper roles of government. That insight cuts across party lines, in ways that aren't always predictable, and which almost never conform to Manichean ideas about how to sort political blocs.

Put another way, the same Tea Party wave that was tarred as racist is now contributing toward a criminal justice reform movement that stands on the precipice of rolling back the biggest civil rights violations of the last four decades. When those days of liberation come, it will be the libertarian right and the progressive left-as well as the mass of American public opinion, particularly among the young-who will deserve the most credit.

Centrists are great for establishing boundaries around acceptable discourse. But when it comes to actually freeing people who shouldn't be trapped in a broken criminal justice system, I'll take a wacko bird any day of the week.