Did Rand Paul Betray His Criminal Justice Reform Outreach on Baltimore?

Baltimore riots do complicate the rhetoric of criminal justice reform.


Two different writers pretty savvy about the politics of what politicians say and do have dinged Paul for allegedly muffing an opportunity regarding the Baltimore riots and Freddie Gray's murder by cop to seem as serious as he wants to be on criminal justice reform.

See on this Eli Stokols at Politico and David Weigel at Bloomberg. Stokols quotes various African-Americans, both within and without the GOP, who see his mere discussion of family breakdown problems and a dark joke about being glad his train didn't stop in Baltimore as endangering any progress he's made in seeming like he understands the criminal justice and race aspects of urban troubles. Weigel sees the campaign missing the strategic communication talents of recently departed Senate staffer Brian Darling. Both writers note that Paul also did not stress the police shooting in the back of Walter Scott in South Carolina while campaigning near where the murder occurred (though he did talk about it on the news around the same time).

As someone on record with an op-ed in the New York Times both wanting a more consistently and radically libertarian-speaking Rand Paul, and recognizing the political perils of it, I understand people who want Paul to talk like the best possible version of who he could be on the issues that concern them most. While his criminal justice talk is a vital part of the whole Paul message, and absolutely ought to remain so, I'm less censurious about what he did and didn't say on the occasion of the Baltimore riots.

Riots, sadly, do complicate the way political rhetoric will be received here. For some it apparently makes it easier to to start speaking out about racial issues, and general grim officious violence issues, involving how police interact with African-American citizens (and other citizens), especially in certain neighborhoods and cities. The riots, so to speak, put those issues in the front of the news cycle. One needn't be any kind of policy entrepreneur to pile on.

For some, who might fear being tarred with supporting riots if they commisserate with the causes of the rage behind them as the riots happen, the context makes such talk harder. That's not that hard to understand for a Republican presidential candidate facing a long competitive primary battle.

If for some terrible reason Paul stops talking criminal justice reform, sentencing reform, drug policy reform, and those other vital issues from now on, he deserves all the criticisms anyone can muster. For merely not having either the instant mindset or nerve to double down on it while Baltimore burned, that seems an understandable judgment call. To use an analogy from his father's experience, explaining the root causes that lead to bad things happening—root causes that government can change—as Ron Paul did with terrorism is all too easily read by the uncharitable as excusing the bad things. (And while many who want to see change in American policing, both what it polices and how, actually do more or less excuse the rioting, it would be pretty unreasonable to expect Rand Paul to do that.)

Paul has done better with his rhetoric in the past, as I wrote back in December 2014:

Who else would react to Ferguson not by avoiding the topic (most of them), or offering mealy-mouthed evocations of the "decent and respectful law enforcement officers" as Hillary did, but by blaming systemic issuesof government preying on the poor with petty law enforcement and fines and the racial disparities in an unjust war on drugs? Especially since the specifics of the Michael Brown shooting weren't really related to either of those things. Paul saw a teachable moment to go off-reservation for not only his party but American politics writ large, and he took it.

Nick Gillespie from last month on Paul's qualities as a political foe of racial injustice.

Other recent Rand Paul-is-running-for-president news of note:

• Liberty Republicans Unite! Michigan Rep. Justin Amash endorses Rand Paul for President in the most formal way possible nowadays, via Facebook and Twitter.

• Paul has long been promising a Silicon Valley offensive in his fight for the presidency, and National Journal reports today on the announcement that such a Paul campaign office in the San Francisco Bay Area* is definitely on the way.

*Originally wrote just "San Francisco" which is not precisely what NJ reported.