When I saw Mr. Conservative, a documentary about former Arizona senator and 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, I was shocked to learn that he was half Jewish. I knew that Goldwater had, unlike the overwhelming majority of Jewish people, opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. How could a Jew, a fellow minority, oppose civil rights? And how could a bunch of presumably bigoted segregationists—not known for their love of the Chosen People—vote for him?
The answer explains a lot about Rand Paul's opposition to the Americans with Disabilities Act and his implication that he likewise opposes the Civil Rights Act.
Paul, like his father, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, is often described as a libertarian. But a more apt description is "Goldwater conservative." That was the phrase that Ron Paul's young volunteers repeatedly used when I interviewed them for my first piece on Ron Paul in Politico. What's the difference?
A libertarian is someone who prizes individual freedom above all else. That sounds much simpler than it is. Obviously, this means supporting low tax rates. But what does it mean with regard to abortion, disability rights, gay rights, or civil rights? That depends on what kind of libertarian you are. A "liberaltarian"—who usually votes Democratic—believes that it is the proper role of the federal government to protect these individual freedoms from intrusions by the states. That, in their view, is the ultimate libertarian principle: protecting the minority from the majority.
But a conservative libertarian—who tends to vote Republican—believes that states themselves have rights too. And so do business owners, even including the right to discriminate. And so conservative libertarians tend to oppose Roe v. Wade and the Americans With Disabilities Act as federal intrusions on states' rights. They tend to argue that states can decide whether to recognize gay marriages or not. And while many oppose abortion on the grounds that it's a violation of the rights of the fetus, they may actually be OK with more-liberal states allowing abortion. At the time of the Civil Rights Act many of them opposed it as an imposition of a federal policy—even if they personally preferred an integrated society—on states and businesses. Paul's claim that the Civil Rights Act opens the door to regulating guns in restaurants, is typical of this logic: once you let the federal government impose something you like (serving black people) on, say, restaurants, you can't stop them from doing things you don't like (disallowing guns). So you're better off not letting the federal government do much of anything, the moral merits of any given law aside. That is the conservatism of Barry Goldwater, and of Ron (and apparently Rand) Paul.
Thus, Barry Goldwater appeared to have no personal animus toward African-Americans, or any personal preference for a segregated society. He was not a Southerner committed to keeping a system of racial apartheid in place for the benefits of economic exploitation, or nostalgia for the "good old days" of slavery. He didn't fear-monger among white Southerners with the specter of black people "in our swimming pools" like Strom Thurmond did in his 1948 Dixiecrat segregationist presidential campaign.
As Goldwater's heir, it makes a certain intellectually honest sense for Rand Paul to say that while he would not choose to shop at a segregated business, it isn't his role, or that of the federal government, to impose that on others. This is a very extremist view. Civil-rights advocates will, correctly, point out that for someone suffering from discrimination this is a distinction without a difference.
This is not mutually exclusive with being personally racist. Plenty of people believe in states rights and believe in segregation as an end unto itself. Indeed, in 2008 Dave Weigel and Julian Sanchez exposed the ugly history of racially inflammatory statements in Ron Paul's newsletters. (Typical example, from a piece about the L.A. riots: "Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks.")
And even conservative libertarians with no history of personal racial animus have used their common ground with segregationists to win their votes. Goldwater, who carried five states in the Deep South despite losing by a landslide in most of the country, was the first to blaze this path. Ronald Reagan, who opened his 1980 presidential campaign with a paean to states rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi (where three civil-rights activists had been killed), traveled it to the White House.
So Paul is merely proving Michael Kinsley's axiom that a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth. Of course, Paul opposes the Civil Rights Act, he just isn't supposed to say so.