Rand Paul went to Howard University to find voters Republicans neglect. It wasn’t great, but he did better than most.

U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) addresses a breakfast meeting.
Sen. Rand Paul

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It was all going fine until Rand Paul got stuck on a name. The Kentucky senator had just finished a 20-minute speech at Howard University, the 167-year-old historically black college in northwest Washington, D.C. He’d survived the inevitable civic demonstration, when Brian Menifee, a mechanical engineering senior, tried to unfurl a red and black and green banner reading “Howard University Doesn’t Support White Supremacy.” Menifee, wearing dreadlocks and a He-Man and the Masters of the Universe T-shirt, was yanked out of the room by security as the senator looked on and the audience applauded.

“You know, I wasn’t sure if my speech would be entertaining,” joked Paul.

That got a laugh. Paul got through his remarks, all about how “when the time is right, I hope that African-Americans will again look to the party of emancipation, civil liberty, and individual freedom.” Students ran to the microphones, the queues for questions spilling into the aisles of the auditorium. But the third question sounded like a gimme.

“Are we discussing the 19th-century Republican Party,” asked Howard junior Immanuel Lewis, “or are we discussing the post-1968 Republican Party of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan? My question for you is: Which one do you identify with?”

Exactly what Paul had come to discuss. “We see horrible Jim Crow and horrible racism in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s—it was all Democrats,” he said. “It wasn’t Republicans. Now, did some of them switch over and become Republicans? Yes.” Then he searched his memory.

“One of the African-American U.S. senators was a guy named, uh—I’m blanking on his name—from Massachusetts.”

Students started shouting the answer. Brooke! Edward Brooke! He was a graduate of Howard, after all.

“Brooks!” said Paul. “Edwin Brooks!” Laughter burbled out of the audience, barely suppressed, as Paul quoted Brooke on how Republicans simply needed to talk more about their accomplishments.

“How many of you—if I’d said, who do you think the founders of the NAACP are,” asked Paul, “do you think they were Democrats or Republicans, would everybody here know they were all Republicans?”

More shouting, more laughter. Yes! Every Howard student is required to “satisfy an African-American course requirement.” Of course they knew this.

“I don’t mean that to be insulting,” said Paul. “I don’t know what you know. I mean, I’m trying to find out what the connection is.”

The tension cooled, but it never fully thawed. Rand Paul possesses a monk’s confidence in his ability to convert skeptics with his words. He makes alliances more easily than some Republicans, finding the libertarian common ground with Democrats on drones, drug policy, or the ongoing war in Afghanistan. His 13-hour filibuster of CIA Director John Brennan’s nomination was a genuine sensation, and it moved public opinion. He followed it up with a Spanglish speech about immigration reform. Outreach to black voters? Anything’s possible for the Hayek Whisperer.

And Paul was trying to perfect a triple-axel that other Republicans had tried and failed to perform. The post-election Republican visit to Howard is nearly a tradition. Then-RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman did it in 2005. “If the party of Lincoln does not have more African-Americans come back home,” said Mehlman, “then we can’t call ourselves a real majority.” Then-RNC Chairman Michael Steele did it in 2009, with a more buddy-buddy approach. “A lot of folks thought I was gonna come up into this institution and convert all of y’all to become Republicans,” he said. “That is a bone-headed idea.”

Well, that was his opinion. Paul was beaten to Wednesday morning’s speech by a team of Young Americans for Liberty volunteers, wearing “Stand With Rand” stickers, trying to get names for the senator’s mailing list. When the senator arrived, he paid tribute to his cojones.

“When I think of how political enemies often twist and distort my positions,” he said, “I think [of T.S.] Eliot’s words: ‘When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, how should I presume?’ And here I am today at Howard, a historically black college. Here I am, a guy who once presumed to discuss a section of the Civil Rights Act.”

In 2010, Paul had made a spirited, libertarian critique of the Act’s implementation, was swiftly accused of racism, and forever changed the way he talks about these things.

On Wednesday morning, he was talking past the audience. To a viewer at home—a Fox News viewer, maybe—it was enough that Paul was there and a bonus that he got heckled. “Republicans do, indeed, still believe many rights remain with the people and states respectively,” said Paul. “When some people hear that, they tune us out and say: He’s just using code words for the state’s right to discriminate, for the state’s right to segregate and abuse. But that’s simply not true. Many Republicans do believe that decentralization of power is the best policy, that government is more efficient, more just, and more personal when it is smaller and more local.”

Republicans don’t understand why this message fails to grip black voters. It didn’t grip the crowd at Howard. Heckler aside, the room sat silent as Paul expounded on the Democrats’ pre-1964 record on race, from one obscure bigot to another. No one applauded until Paul got to some actual policy. “I am working with Democratic senators to make sure that kids who make bad decisions such as nonviolent possession of drugs are not imprisoned for lengthy sentences,” said Paul. “I am working to make sure that first time offenders are put into counseling and not imprisoned with hardened criminals.” Barack Obama and George Bush did drugs, after all, and they turned out okay because they got “lucky.”

Paul was on to something, but it didn’t last. “Some argue with evidence that our drug laws are biased—that they are the new Jim Crow,” he said. “But to simply be against them for that reason misses a larger point. They are unfair to everyone.”

Why’d Paul go there? “I think everyone in this room has read The New Jim Crow,” said Evan Rogers, a sophomore. The 2012 book by Michelle Alexander argued that a “colorblind consensus” had created a new caste system, with countless African-Americans ruined for life after committing minor felonies. “As a criminal,” she wrote, “you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.” And here Paul, who wields hyperbole like a pro to campaign against spy drones, was telling people to stop invoking Jim Crow. Paul told one student who fretted about Republican voter ID bills that he “demean[ed] the horror” of poll tests.

But this was savvy. When he left the campus, past the students still holding the “White Supremacy” banner and conducting interviews, Paul remained the Republican most likely to reform mandatory minimums. He remained the most prominent Republican supporter of drug law reform. He wouldn’t apologize for the Republican Party, or for libertarianism, or for that 2010 interview about the Civil Rights Act. “Should we limit speech from people we find abhorrent?” he said then. “Should we limit racists from speaking?” Now, he was offering African-Americans some accommodation, from time to time.

“I think he’s the best chance we have to win in 2016,” said Michael Davis, a 1979 graduate of Howard’s law school and current Republican activist. He’d delayed a trip to the RNC’s annual meeting in order to see Paul—“this was more important.” He did so even though he disagreed completely with Paul on civil rights. Businesses weren’t as “enlightened” as Paul wished them to be.

“But, you know, I traveled to Europe with Dan Quayle,” said Davis. “I think about the bad rap he got over ‘potatoe.’ He never shook that. But other politicians have made these kinds of errors and they’ve thrived.”