Paul's rough day at Howard
Tea party titan Rand Paul, visiting Howard University on Wednesday, told students that he had been called "either brave or crazy to be here" at the historically black college.
Probably some of each: brave, because he's trying to sell himself and fellow Republicans to African-Americans, a singularly resistant demographic; and crazy, because he based his pitch on revised history and airbrushed facts -- and the Howard kids weren't fooled.
"No Republican questions or disputes civil rights," the senator from Kentucky proclaimed. "I've never wavered in my support for civil rights or the Civil Rights Act."
As a candidate in 2010, Paul questioned the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act's Title II, which prohibits private discrimination. "I don't want to be associated with those people," he said when MSNBC's Rachel Maddow asked him about private businesses that refuse to serve black customers, "but I also don't want to limit their speech in any way in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior because that's one of the things freedom requires."
Asked by the moderator at Howard to explain his claim that he never spoke out against the Civil Rights Act, Paul provided the creative rationale that he was talking "about the ramifications of certain portions of the Civil Rights Act beyond race, as are now being applied to smoking, menus, listing calories and things on menus and guns."
Paul acknowledged that his wooing of African-Americans "is an uphill battle," and his hour with the students confirmed this. Talking about the Republicans' historical support for civil rights, he said: "I'll give you one example. The first, one of the African-American U.S. senators was a guy named, uh, I'm blanking on his name, from Massachusetts -- "
"Edward Brooke!" several in the audience called out.
"Edwin Brookes," Paul repeated.
The students broke out in hysterics. The laughter had barely subsided when Paul posed a question. "If I were to have said, 'Who do you think the founders of the NAACP are?' ... would everybody in here know they were all Republicans?"
"Yes," several could be heard grumbling. "Of course they would," one woman informed him.
Paul dug himself in deeper. "I don't know what you know," he said.
They knew enough to be suspicious of his central argument: that Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party is the same Republican Party that now dominates the South. This analysis glossed over the civil rights era, when Democrats and Republicans essentially switched sides as Southern Dixiecrats left for the GOP.
"Democrats in Louisville were led by Courier-Journal Editor Henry Watterson and were implacably opposed to blacks voting," Paul argued. Watterson died in 1921. "Meanwhile," he continued, "Kentucky's Democrat-controlled legislature voted against the 13th, the 14th and the 15th amendments." In the 1860s.
A student questioner sought clarification. "Are we discussing the Republican Party of the 19th century?" he asked, to applause. "Or are we discussing the post-1968 Republican Party?"
"The argument I'm trying to make is we haven't changed," Paul proposed.
The Howard students weren't hostile to the senator as much as indifferent. Campus police swarmed outside the hall and erected barricades, although they proved unnecessary. Doors opened an hour early, but seats didn't fill up until the last minute, and many spent their time texting and fanning themselves in the overheated hall.
"My hope is that you will hear me out," Paul asked, and all appeared to -- except for senior Brian Menifee, who raised a hand-lettered banner announcing that "Howard University Doesn't Support White Supremacy." Police threw him out roughly, and other students cheered.
But Paul got no cheers for most of his ideas: criticizing Democrats' "unlimited federal assistance," calling private-school choice "the civil rights issue of our day" and saying that "there are Republicans who don't clamor for war." He did better with his proposal to repeal mandatory minimum sentences but he drew boos when he defended voter-ID laws.
"I come to Howard," Paul said, "to say I want a government that leaves you alone." He argued that "objective evidence shows that big government is not a friend to African-Americans."
Freshman Keenan Glover disagreed. "I want a government that's going to help me," he said. "I want a government that's going to help me pay for my college education."
"We can disagree," the senator said, then upgraded his pessimism. "Probably, we're going to end up disagreeing."
Eugene Robinson is on vacation. His column will resume later in April.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter,@Milbank.