Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican who is on record questioning a part of the Civil Rights Act and has been associated with neo-Confederates, has a shot at winning over a significant minority of black voters in 2016 if he keeps doing what he’s been doing over the past year or so.
Hillary Clinton fans should not take for granted that as of now the biggest obstacle to such a seemingly unlikely feat is not the former Secretary of State, but Rand’s own party.
I know because I’m one of those gettable black voters who haven’t gotten much attention the past few election cycles because we were, frankly, not gettable in 2008 and 2012, not only because of the historic nature of those races, but because then candidate Barack Obama spoke eloquently on the issue Paul has taken up as his own.
I voted for Obama twice, the first time I was motivated by his work in Illinois to revamp the criminal justice system, to make it just a little less unfair. During his time as president, he has helped to close what was a 100 to 1 crack to powder-cocaine disparity and cleared the way for tens of thousands of non-violent drug offenders to receive reduced sentences.
It’s been a good start, but Paul not only plans to carry that torch, he is speaking about it in ways Obama has seemed reluctant to since he’s been in the White House.
In a speech at the Iowa State Republican Party Convention this summer, Paul used the language of the GOP’s religious-family values platform to say what many black Americans have long been arguing, that the war on drugs is not just ineffective, but racist, that dark-skin kids make up the bulk of drug arrests because they are targeted in ways white kids aren’t.
“Prisons are full of black and brown kids because they don’t get a good attorney, they live in poverty, it’s easier to arrest them than to go to the suburbs,” he told the crowd. “There’s a lot of reasons, but I can tell you, if you go to the African-American community and ask them if they think the law is fair, they’ll tell you no.”
He talked about second chances for felons, redemption for youngsters and the absurdity of giving people long prison sentences for youthful mistakes.
He was channeling Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” and black preachers on Sunday mornings as much as he was speaking the tune of politicians in red states who see prison reform as a smart economic and fiscally-conservative issue.
“Let’s be the party that has compassion, that doesn’t say the behavior is right but says, ‘You know what? When you’re done with your time, that you get the right to vote back,’” Paul said in Iowa.
More recently, he has taken on the militarization of the police, a phenomenon that was on full display in Ferguson, Missouri as heavily-armed cops donned combat gear and breezily pointed high-powered weapons at peaceful protests, even threatening to shoot. Paul spoke out against such scenes - in which black people are too often on the wrong end of the guns - while Clinton initially refused to say anything about it. When she did, her words were eloquent. But didn't resonate the way Paul's have, because he seems to be passionate and engaging on an issue he could avoid if he chose to while Clinton seemed to be responding to outside pressure to speak up, not that she wanted to.
The GOP began losing the black vote by ungodly margins beginning in the 1960s after former white supremacists, separatists and segregations fled the Democratic Party after they were turned off by black civil rights gains. The GOP welcomed them with open arms and used their racial angst and anger to put a hammer lock on the Southern vote.
While numerous conservative pundits and politicians today try to ignore that history, it doesn’t matter if it was done intentionally, because the perception in the eyes of most black voters is that the party is hostile to black people, in its policies and rhetoric. Conservatives can waste time trying to deny that perception or understand and dismantle it. Paul has chosen the latter, wiser path.
It is not a small thing. It goes to the heart of black voters’ complaints about the GOP. While conservatives blame trouble in the black community on a government-fueled dependency that has led to broken homes and a high unemployment rate that’s almost always twice that of whites, many black voters see a different culprit, a criminal justice system rigged against them and their children, a justice system that brought harm and shame to previous generations of blacks but really took off in the 1980s. The prison system is about 10 times as large today as it was a few decades ago, and almost all of that growth was predicated on locking up scores of young black and brown men.
Conservatives blame welfare and lack of morality for the high out-of-wedlock black birthrate, but many black voters believe the family began breaking down for two reasons: good-paying industrial jobs were shipped out of their neighborhoods, sometimes overseas, and families were stripped of the male presence in the home as the war on drugs was ramped up. (It should be noted that some of that ramping up was fueled by black politicians who succumbed to the over-blown and since-debunked fears about an epidemic of teen super predators and crack babies.)
Paul has been speaking directly about that reality and directly to black audiences. Don’t be fooled by the empty seats at the National Urban League conference when Paul spoke earlier this summer. He doesn’t have to reach all black Americans, or even most black voters. He simply has to convince enough, maybe 15 percent to 20 percent to reverse the demographic wave that seems likely to drown the GOP in coming national elections. It will be an uphill climb, given that Mitt Romney only received 6 percent of the black vote nationally. But Chris Christie got 21 percent in a blue state and Thad Cochran attracted enough to fend off a challenger in deep-red Mississippi.
It’s a mistake to believe 90 percent or more of the black vote will automatically go to the Democratic nominee. Paul, with his outspokenness on a matter that has the potential to move black voters more than others, has a chance to make a post-Obama dent in the Obama coalition.
It’s also a mistake to believe Paul’s racial missteps will keep black voters from his side. If he musters the courage to explain clearly his concerns about the Civil Rights Law instead of running away from his beliefs, his case will only grow stronger. In essence, he believes the free market could – and would – punish private business owners who discriminate based on race, which is why he believes private owners should be left to make that choice. That position might be wrong, and even historically naïve, but it is not so far beyond the pale that gettable black voters would instantly be turned off by him. But he has to be willing to be as clear about that as he is articulating the racial problems within the criminal justice system.
His past association with neo-Confederates will turn gettable black voters away from him as much as Rev. Jeremiah Wright turned them away from Obama. Those voters understand the complexity of race much more than they are given credit for. Many of them – like me – are friends and go to church with white people who cling to the Confederate flag, not because they are racist, but because of a misguided view of honoring their history. Obama initially refused to walk away from Wright because he knew black people had the same kinds of strained, complex dealings with race as white people and shouldn’t be discarded because of them, and that’s why the black voters who defended Obama would be open to Paul.
Remember: black voters supported Bill Clinton even after he rushed back to Arkansas to make sure a mentally-disabled black man was put to death, and he threw Sister Souljah under the bus.
If Paul keeps talking this way and keeps showing up to speak to and hear directly from black audiences while pushing legislation that can continue the real criminal justice reform begun in the Obama era, gettable black voters will begin paying attention.
It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds, which is why Clinton would be wise to take notice now. She should not allow Paul to own this issue for the next couple of years. In 2008, I got the sense that the Clinton camp was convinced early on that the black vote would swing its way in the primary because of the support the Clintons had long received from black voters. Her campaign was able to get high-profile endorsements of influential black figures in and outside of politics. But it wasn’t enough because black voters were in the mood to consider something else, which is what I wrote about then after attending an Obama campaign rally and interviewing him when he was still down 25 points to Clinton in the polls and long-time pundits and analysts considered him a long shot. He was no underdog because he was connecting with people where they were. In 2016, Paul might become that something else for just enough of those gettable black voters to make Clinton’s seemingly inevitable victory a little less sure.
She should grab the mantle Paul has claimed before Paul’s message, and his sincerity, seeps deeply into the political marketplace. If she is wise, she’d get involved with the likes of Trayvon Martin’s parents and not let the Michael Brown moment pass her by, for instance, proving that she understands the issues closest to many black people’s heart while showing she will not take them for granted.
Black people responded passionately to Martin’s killing because it was all their fears about the criminal justice system come to life – and a tragic death – a system that both fuels and feeds on stereotypes that demean black worth and lead to ugly things, whether it be the killing of an unarmed 17-year-old or the breakdown of the family. Brown's killing in Ferguson and a black man killed by an illegal chokehold and another in a Kmart for the sin of holding a toy gun, along with the knee-jerk by millions of Americans to support the killer and demean the victims, have only reinforced those fears.
Whether he knows it or not, Paul is speaking to that frustration. Clinton better start speaking to it, too. Luckily for her, even if she doesn’t, there’s another obstacle in Paul’s attempt to cleave off just enough black votes to make 2016 a real presidential race – the Republican Party itself.
The GOP has put stakes in the ground to block legislation that would repair the hole in the Voting Rights Act a recent Supreme Court ruling blew into it. It has become rabid about unnecessary voter ID laws that harken back to some of the worst of Jim Crow. Too many in the party freely and openly use rhetoric that paint black people as lazy, immoral, violent and stupid, with talk of black voters being blinded and stuck on a “Democratic plantation.”
And their ugly treatment of Obama, particularly talk of impeachment, which comes in the shadow of a birtherism no president before him ever had to face, will make Paul’s task that much tougher.
Paul seems to understand that and has told his fellow Republicans to tone down the nastiness.
They would be wise to take his lead – and so would Hillary Clinton.