This is an anti-establishment year, and no one personifies that sentiment better than Rand Paul. He trounced his establishment-backed opponent in the Kentucky Republican Senate primary by railing against Washington and GOP leaders who did not support him. It turns out, however, that the establishment isn’t completely useless. The establishment would have advised, for example, that it was a bad idea for a conservative with wide-ranging views to go back on The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC so soon after his victory.
Maddow spent about 20 minutes last night quizzing Paul about his views on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and he and the Republican Party have spent the last 24 hours cleaning up the mess. Paul said he believed that the federal government should not tell private businesses whether they could discriminate. He hated racism as much as anyone, he said, but believes that businesses that discriminate should be forced to change through private action: speaking out, boycotts, and the like.
As a practical matter, that ignores history and the human behavior of the time. But as a political matter, this just isn’t something a candidate says out loud—even if he believes it. At worst, it makes him seem to take racism lightly, and at best, it’s distracting. Before lunch, Paul had put out a statement that he would not support the repeal of the law.
This is what it looks like when the anti-establishment bumps up against the establishment. Now that Paul is the official GOP nominee, he has a higher profile. He’s added to his newsworthiness by claiming his campaign is at the vanguard of the Tea Party movement. That gives him a higher profile still. It also invites the Democratic Party to try to make him the symbol of the entire GOP and means the Republican establishment may have to answer for the things he says.
Democratic Party operatives must have melted their servers with all the e-mail messages they sent to reporters questioning Paul’s views on racism and his libertarian beliefs. Were they so extreme that he would not support one of the signature laws of American equality?
This is what opposition parties do. With Paul, the Democrats have ample material from his past. But rarely does the candidate help his enemies by providing a fresh moment to paint him as an extremist.
Republicans rushed to distance themselves. Senate leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Jim DeMint had backed different candidates in the Kentucky primary, but they were united in their effort to move away from Paul’s remarks. (This was not the kind of Republican unity the party was looking for.) McConnell put out a statement that said “Among Senator McConnell’s most vivid memories and most formative events in his career was watching his boss, Sen. John Sherman Cooper, help pull together the votes to break the filibuster and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
As a part of the damage control, Republicans pointed out that there are sitting Democrats who opposed the 1964 bill, including Robert Byrd who filibustered it for 14 hours straight. But Byrd and current Democrats don’t hold those views now. For his part, Paul argues that a 1964 law would not be relevant to issues he’d face as a senator. But that’s not exactly right. The questions about his views on the Civil Rights Act grow out of his present-day views about limits on government intervention. That’s always an issue in Washington, especially right now, as the Senate debates a bill to regulate financial institutions. At its core, it involves the question of just how far government can go to regulate private enterprise.
Democrats are pressing Paul so hard for several reasons. It’s not that they just want to win the seat back from the GOP. They want to make every Republican defend Paul. Democrats need African-American turnout to be high this election. Getting into a debate about civil rights would help that. But they’ll also try to keep Republicans responding to Paul’s other non-establishment views—such as the need to abolish much of the federal government, including the Federal Reserve and Social Security Administration.
Parties always try to do this with extreme figures: They impute their views to the party as a whole. Long after she stopped being a politician and became a political celebrity, Democrats are still trying to make Republicans answer for Sarah Palin. They’ll have an easier time with Paul because before today’s moving away, Republican officials were rushing toward him. Immediately after Paul won, McConnell embraced him. A unity rally has been planned. Why the rush? Paul is a leading light in the Tea Party movement. When he won, he claimed the victory in their name. Tea Party activists don’t like Washington. If you’re a Washington politician and you want to stay alive, you need to look like you’re on their team. Hence: Embrace Rand Paul. But elections are also made up of suburban voters and moderate voters who might think it strange to be against a portion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Though Republicans rushed to respond, it may not mean Democrats will get much more out of Paul’s collection of exciting quotes. Democrats tried the same thing with DeMint, who once said single moms shouldn’t teach in South Carolina schools. DeMint is now a senator and considered a rising star in the party as a voice for the populist conservatives. In other words, he’s now a member of the establishment. He might have some advice for the man who hopes to be his colleague.