By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON – 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 ….”
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. “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.
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.
“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.”
Contact DANA MILBANK at firstname.lastname@example.org.