Rand Paul's Missed Opportunity

I have to admit, as an African-American who has spent a considerable amount of time and energy over the past months trying to convince friends and associates that the Tea Party is not actually a bunch of closet racists who just can’t accept that American has a black President, when I first heard that Rand Paul couldn’t bring himself to endorse the sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibited segregated lunch counters, my stomach just dropped.

I grew up idolizing the college students who staged nonviolent sit-ins at those lunch counters (my father wrote a book about them in fact), and the idea that by electing Tea Partiers into office, we might have to consider returning to a time when I might not be able to travel freely in all parts of the country is pretty damn odious. It was a major mistake that tarred not only Rand Paul’s campaign, but the Tea Party movement in general. It was a massive gift to the Left, who jumped with glee at the chance to demonstrate that they were right all along about the Tea Party’s racism.

From my perspective, the simple answer should have been something along the lines of:

I support the Civil Rights Act because I believe that a proper role of the federal government under the Constitution is to protect the rights of the individual against the tyranny of the majority. I believe in limited government, individual freedom and private property, but limited government does not mean no government. There is a proper role for the federal government in society, and protecting the God-given inalienable civil rights of individuals against the arbitrary and capricious acts of those who seek to deprive them of those rights is an essential part of that role.

But it is also true that the federal government has used the powers granted to it under the Commerce Clause to engage in all kinds of activities that do not serve to protect the rights of individuals, but instead impinge upon them. Requiring someone to buy health insurance from a private company is not analogous to protecting someone’s individual right to freely travel throughout the country. Who’s rights are being protected by the individual mandate, Rachel?

OK, legal scholars out there might quibble over the finer details of Commerce Clause jurisprudence, and whether or not the Civil Rights Act does in fact establish the precedent for something as intrusive as the individual mandate, but I don’t think 98% of Americans would ever even engage the question at that level. The bottom line is that the vast majority of Americans both accept the legitimacy of civil rights laws, and reject the individual mandate. All Dr. Paul needed to do was articulate that sentiment in a rational, easily-understood way. There was no need for college-dorm type discussions about the theoretical problems with Sections X, Y or Z of the Act.

But there is another point that Dr. Paul was maybe trying (unsuccessfully) to make that I think would bring much-needed perspective to this question. Given the above response, it’s likely that Rachel Maddow would’ve countered with maybe some of the questions that David Gregory posed on Meet the Press in Dr. Paul’s absence:

OK, so where then do you draw the line? If you support a federal role in civil rights, what about the minimum wage, workplace safety and child labor laws?

Now, having gotten away from the third rail issue of race, Dr. Paul would be in a position to come back with a more generalized critique of the liberal/progressive article of faith that all good things must come from the federal government:

Rachel, the issue for conservatives and libertarians is not whether higher wages, safer workplaces or child labor are good things; it’s whether the federal government is the right or most effective entity to address those concerns. We all want people to prosper from their work and be safe and free; we just don’t believe that the federal government is always the best, only or most effective way to achieve that.

Taking your minimum wage example, some people believe that the minimum wage helps raise wages; others believe that it just causes unemployment. Why not let each state decide for itself, and then see which states have higher wages and which states have more unemployment?

Liberals believe that government should raise taxes to care for the poor; conservatives believe that doing so will only make everyone poorer, including the poor and studies have shown in fact that conservatives tend to give more to charities that serve the poor.

So, all of us want what’s best for the people; Rachel, we just hold different beliefs about the proper role of the government. When you deliberately and disingenuously misrepresent the argument as being between those who care about certain people, and those who do not, you cheapen the whole debate and do a great disservice to your listeners.

Now, I’m not saying that Dr. Paul would’ve had the opportunity to say all of that. But the basic point is that most people want the same things for themselves and their fellow Americans — peace, security, prosperity, opportunity. It’s just that we differ on the proper role of government in providing those things. Liberals and progressives think that it’s the responsibility of the federal government to make sure that everyone has them; conservatives and libertarians don’t think that’s possible, and thus seek to limit the role of government in order to better enable people to provide those things for themselves.

But Republicans cannot allow the debate to become simply, “Democrats care about poor people, and black people, and children, whereas Republicans only care about white people with money”. Republicans have to articulate why limited government is better for everyone, and why socialism, despite its good intentions, just makes everything worse for everyone.

And once you shift the terrain to which kind of government is better, now you’re in territory where conservatives and libertarians can win easily. The evidence is plain to see. In every place that it’s been tried, socialism has led straight to misery, whereas limited government, the free market and respect for individual rights has been a godsend to formerly oppressed people whenever they have won it, starting with us. The American people, even those groups that are tied in with the Democrats, know this. Anyone who has ever been to a DMV knows that government can never deliver happiness.

I realize that Dr. Paul is an opthamologist who has never before run for office, so he’s to be excused to an extent for a lack of polish. He also grew up around Ron Paul, so it may take a while before he figures out which parts of his father’s philosophy are just not applicable in the real world of national politics. But I don’t think that Rand Paul is a racist, and I do think he’d bring a breath of fresh air to the Senate, so I hope that he does find his footing sooner rather than later in his race.