David Frum

04.16.13

What Rand Paul Should Have Done at Howard University

Early this morning, I exchanged some messages with Brian Darling of Senator Rand Paul's office about my book review of Strom Thurmond's America by Joseph Crespino.

The review jumped off from Senator Paul's question at Howard University, expressing wonder that the party of Lincoln had so utterly lost support in black America. I suggested that Paul's question was at best naive. Brian challenged me: OK, so what would I have said instead?

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I promised an answer, but it's too long for Twitter.

The answer begins by defining strategic goals.

I'm just guessing here, but it looks to me that Senator Paul's goal in speaking at Howard was to reassure white Republican primary voters that he does not share the most alarming views of his father, Ron Paul. Rand Paul recognizes that he cannot win a major-party presidential nomination if he is perceived as tainted by racism. By speaking at Howard, Paul hoped to show allay some of the doubts he'll meet among big-dollar donors and more moderate-minded Republican primary voters.

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Unfortunately for Senator Paul, Howard students made the same guess that I did. They sensed that they were being treated as props, not interlocutors, and they understandably resented it. Rand Paul's speech received nearly unanimous negative reviews from the students in the room and from African-American commentators generally.

I think Republicans should aim at a bigger goal: restoring political competition within black America.

Former congressman Artur Davis has some helpful advice about how this might be done, (h/t BookerRising.net)

First, there was Paul’s fixation on historical alignments that predate his audience’s grandparents. The men and women who heard Paul could have used a primer not on 19th century history or even pre-Voting Rights Act Dixiecrats, but on the GOP’s contemporary pattern of electing blacks, Latinos, and East Asian Indians to governorships or Senate seats. It would have been worthwhile to tell the many southern born black kids at Howard that it is Republicans who put a black man in Strom Thurmond’s old seat. ...

Paul devoted a lot of time to the dirty hands another generation of Democrats brought to the debate over race. But it would have been much more relevant for Paul to push his audience on why poverty and inadequately funded black school districts stayed so persistent during the decades of Democratic legislative rule in the South, a run that in the states many of Howard’s students return home to every summer, just ended in the last six years. I wish Paul had given education reform a rationale instead of the catch phrase 'civil rights'. I wish he had spoken more bluntly about the black children whose schools are too often promoting them without preparing them, or the middle class black couples who can’t buy their kids into the social capital and better prospects in the elite private schools across town, or even the award winning public school district in a neighborhood outside their price range. ...

On the subject of federal assistance, Paul rightly held his ground that more is not always better. But his mantra that 'I want a government that leaves you alone' had no chance of resonating with students who view government as a source of student loans and Pell Grants, and to whom being left alone might well mean being uninsured during a health crisis. Paul avoided making the case that a conservative agenda might actually outperform liberal goals in the area of poverty or education. And in a university setting that teaches the value of offering evidence for one’s propositions, Paul mentioned no specific policies that would address the interests of people about to enter an uncertain job market while straining to pay down the debt of financing a degree.

It's no surprise that poor black people don't vote Republican. Poor white people don't vote Republican either. The haunting question for Republicans is why black entrepreneurs, black corporate managers, and black senior military officers don't vote Republican. Paul suggested that black America is the victim of a massive misperception.

Hint: it's never wise to tell people that you know their best interests better than they do themselves.

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For this reason, Republican politicians seeking to reach black audiences would do well to forgo formal speeches. "I talk, you listen" is the wrong approach. The next Republican to visit Howard would do well to try a format where he or she can listen more and speak less. You learn more that way.

One thing that we might especially learn is how badly even the most reachable black voters react to the radicalized attacks on President Obama that have become such an ugly distinguishing feature of conservative media since 2009. WEB Dubois wrote a century ago that black Americans wished above all things for a sense of belonging to their own country:

"He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face."

The election of the first black president announced that the day of that possibility had definitively arrived. It's a delicate thing for Republicans to oppose what President Obama does while respecting who he is and honoring what he represents. By and large, the present generation has failed at that task, and the memory of that failure will embitter black American feelings about the Republican party for years to come.

Fortunately, politics is a never-ending adventure. One generation passes, another generation arrives on the scene. But if Republicans are to do better in the years ahead, they'll need better guides - guides from inside the community they hope to reach - and more willingness to harken to what those guides have to say. "You talk, we listen" is the first step to real change.