Big Tent

Can Rand Bring Blacks Back to the GOP?

Fifty years after Goldwater, the Kentucky Senator is trying to repair the GOP's image with African-American voters.

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Fifty years ago this week, a divided and feverish Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater to lead them to victory. Instead, he led them to a smashing defeat.

There are many reasons for that catastrophe, and some on the right enjoyed a hearty last laugh when Lyndon Johnson abandoned the White House. But ridding themselves of Johnson did not mean that Republicans got back the black vote. Black Americans deserted the Goldwater GOP en masse, and they never came back—not even in the party’s ultra-dominant Reagan years. To be sure, the Reaganaut Jack Kemp made African Americans a powerful pitch. But Kemp belongs to a different time, and that time has now been long in passing.

Now it’s fallen to Rand Paul to revive his party’s standing with black Americans. After the splashy performances that sealed his reputation (a filibuster here, a standing ovation at Berkeley there), Paul has settled into something of a grind as the rest of the GOP’s presumptive presidential contenders take turns trying to cement themselves as the party’s antithesis to all things Paul.

Most recently, that’s meant a public poking contest between Paul and Rick Perry over the merits and demerits of Barack Obama’s Iraq policy, such as it is. Their dueling opinion columns crystallized the party’s central conflict: re-litigating the Bush legacy at large.

Superficially, Paul vs. Perry pits those who are okay with W’s hawkish mantle against those who’d prefer it be set unceremoniously atop the ash heap of history. But the controversy over Iraq is part of a larger struggle—the quest to determine who is the GOP’s Anti-Rand. And lest we think that candidate’s insuperable un-Paul-ish-ness will be defined by his stance on foreign policy, it’s important to keep the Kentucky senator’s most significant twist on Republican politics at the forefront of our minds.

It’s not grand strategy. It’s not taxes. It’s not budgets, or even domestic surveillance. Those are all parts of the puzzle. But the puzzle makes no sense without its most distinctive piece—Paul’s politics of race.

Rand Paul seems to understand what all of America’s would-be Anti-Rands do not: The GOP cannot content itself with picking up “spare” minority votes here and there, mostly from Latinos, and celebrating the relative handful of black figures who stubbornly insist on being Republican.

As a Floridian Anti-Rand like Marco Rubio can attest, the Republican Party doesn’t really have a generic race problem. Lots of minority voters are simply for what the Democratic Party offers, not against the GOP because it strikes them as racist. Black Americans, however, have a different, distinct experience with the GOP. One minute, they were the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower. The next, they were the party opposed to the Civil Rights Act. No amount of theorizing or intellectualization can get around the impact of that change.

Pretty much all Americans would agree that it would be a disaster if the two major parties split symbolically into a “white party” and a “nonwhite party.” Yet relatively few Republicans are willing to consider that a renewed appeal to black voters is key to changing the way the GOP can present itself to minority voters as a whole.

Notably, that’s not because every minority claim to rights or entitlements is just like the African-American struggle for civil rights. It’s because the nature of the new Republican pitch to black voters can change the way the GOP thinks, strategizes, and talks. That’s another thing Paul seems to understand. Instead of talking jobs and take-home pay, he focuses on the nexus of crime, poverty, drugs, and incarceration—as the site of urgently needed reform, not more scolding and “getting tough.”

That’s a political strategy with more to it than moral insight. It’s a challenge to Paul’s competitors even more potent than his departure from Bush-era orthodoxy on international affairs.

Rand Paul has established himself as the one candidate with a uniquely clear and focused take on Republican governance for the future. It’s helpful that he doesn’t have any challengers on the libertarian side. But it’s instructive that all his other challengers fall into the same mushpot of today’s confused, confusing GOP. It’s true that the GOP’s foreign policy desperately needs a new grand-strategic vision. It’s equally true that if one emerges, it’s because domestic politics is still preeminent, both in the minds of would-be Republican contenders and the new voters they’re trying to woo.

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If the GOP’s contending candidates won’t at least accommodate his politics of race, the Anti-Rand who rises to the top faces the discouraging prospect of appearing to oppose them. In that case, defeating Paul will come at the cost of losing to the ghost of Goldwater.