Rand Paul’s Civil Rights Controversy

The general election is off to a rough start for Rand Paul, who has raised eyebrows in several interviews with his position on segregation. Benjamin Sarlin checks in with Tea Party activists, Libertarians, and Paul’s top supporter in the Senate on the controversy.

Rand Paul is drawing fire from his Democratic rival over a series of statements in interviews about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Paul’s flap over the landmark legislation began in an editorial meeting with the Louisville Courier, where he said that he took issue with Title II of the law, which desegregated restaurants, motels, and theaters, on libertarian grounds.

“I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners—I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant,” Paul said, “but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership.”

Interviews with Tea Party organizers indicate that Paul’s views on civil rights are hardly an anomaly among the movement.

Pressed on the Rachel Maddow Show for clarification on his position, Paul doubled down, suggesting that while he was "not in favor of any discrimination of any form,” forced integration was a First Amendment issue. Seeking to clarify his position yet again, Paul put out a press release today saying, “I unequivocally state that I will not support any efforts to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” without addressing whether Title II should have been passed. Finally, in an additional statement to The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, a spokesman for Paul finally backed down on the issue and said, "Civil rights legislation that has been affirmed by our courts gives the federal government the right to ensure that private businesses don't discriminate based on race. Dr. Paul supports those powers."

Interviews with Tea Party organizers indicate that Paul’s views on civil rights are hardly an anomaly among the movement. While several Tea Party activists were careful to stress that the CRA and race in general were irrelevant to their current political program, they nonetheless indicated either broad tolerance or full-on agreement with Paul's position on the law.

Paul’s argument is nothing new in libertarian circles, dating back to Barry Goldwater’s famous opposition to the 1964 law. What’s so surprising to many observers is that these arguments are still out there 46 years after the bill passed: Paul’s father, former presidential candidate Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, has explicitly denounced the CRA on similar grounds to his son, and the current executive director of the Libertarian Party, Wes Benedict, indicated to The Daily Beast that his organization was on board with Rand’s critique.

Rand Paul on Big Government and the Fed “In general, we don’t like the federal government regulating businesses and private property,” Benedict said.

Robin Stublen, a Tea Party activist in Florida, told The Daily Beast that Paul and his father’s position “doesn’t make them racist,” and that he shared their views.

“Whether a sign is on a door or placed in a window doesn’t change the heart of the man who owns the restaurant,” Stublen said when asked about the CRA. “And first it’s one thing, but now the government is telling me how much salt I should eat or whether I can have soda—why don’t they just come in and burp me after dinner?”

Andrew Ian Dodge, co-ordinator for Tea Party Patriots Maine, chastised Paul for offering his political opponents an effective opening but said, regarding the CRA, “there is an issue on property rights and it’s understandable.”

“While, in theory, government telling businesses what they can and cannot do in general is a bad thing, this seems to be probably the last and most obscure issue to discuss,” Dodge said. “Obviously there are long memories and until the memory of that kind of discrimination in the South doesn’t exist anymore—only then could you possibly talk about it again.”

Judson Phillips, a Nashville attorney who organized the National Tea Party Convention, said that he had never heard the CRA discussed in activist circles before the Paul flap, but that he did not believe opposition to the bill should be a deal breaker for the movement. He attributed Paul’s comments to his intellectual background.

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“I know a lot of people in the Ron Paul/Rand Paul/Campaign for Liberty circle, they like to hold these very theoretical constitutional discussions,” he said. “I think you can fall on either side of that issue and still be a member in good standing of a Tea Party group. It’s not like coming out and saying you favor TARP or raising the top marginal rates to 91 percent.”

Others, such as RedState blogger Erick Erickson, have been quick to defend Paul on the basis that he was misinterpreted, rather than that he was correct. “He was very clear on his support for the Civil Rights Act,” Mark Skoda, founder of the Memphis Tea Party, said. “There is no tolerance for any racism at all in the movement.”

Among elected officials, however, Paul’s comments have drawn few—if any—defenders. Wesley Denton, a spokesman for Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who endorsed Paul, did not respond to an email question regarding whether Paul’s comments were a source of concern for the senator. He did, however, reaffirm DeMint’s support for the CRA: “Of course he supports it,” Denton wrote in an email. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who endorsed Paul’s primary opponent Trey Grayson, appeared to take Paul’s clarification at face value. “[McConnell] has always considered the law a monumental achievement for the country and is glad to hear Dr. Paul supports it as well,” a spokesman said in a statement to Politico’s Ben Smith.

Correction: Andrew Ian Dodge was initially as identified as an organizer for the Portland Tea Party in Maine.

Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.