It was nearly a year ago but it still very much resonates now. Rand Paul’s speech at Howard University, the historically black college in Washington, D.C., didn’t go precisely as he’d hoped.
In a bid to reach out to young African-Americans last April, the Republican Senator from Kentucky offended some in his audience by asking whether they knew the NAACP was founded by Republicans – yes, they knew – and botching the first name of Edward W. Brooke, the first black U.S. senator elected since Reconstruction.
A champion of conservative Libertarians and the Tea Party, Paul later said he’d learned from the experience and would continue to reach out to African Americans. “I thought my reception at Howard was much better than my reception from the left-wing media,” he quipped.
Not long after, Paul was back before a young black audience at Simmons College in Louisville, Ky. The freshman senator was blunt: "I’m trying to figure out how to get more votes. Because in the end the Republican Party, I think, will no longer be a national party if we don’t somehow attract African-American votes, Latino votes, Asian American votes. We haven’t been doing very well.”
Since then, Paul – an early favorite for president in Republican and conservative straw polls – has been regularly reaching out to political factions and interest groups outside the Republican tent. His overarching message: The Republicans will lose the presidential election again in 2016 unless they expand a political base dominated by non-Hispanic white males.
His speeches also combine his opposition to the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs and what he sees as unwarranted U.S. military and diplomatic intervention overseas, with his concerns about drug sentencing, excessive government regulations and an erosion of civil liberties.
Back in November, Paul told cadets at the Citadel in Charleston, S.C., that he and other political leaders “owe it to you to clearly show our national interest before we go to war” and that “above all, we should demand a formal declaration of war before we risk the blood of our soldiers.”
At the Detroit Economic Club on Dec. 16, Paul proposed revitalizing the nation’s cities by creating “economic freedom zones.” His plan would cut federal taxes in communities like Detroit that have an unemployment rate of 12 percent or more. “Inside these zones, we’ll suspend the capital gains tax and allow small businesses to deduct most of what they invest,” he said.
On that same trip, Paul also called for reforms of federal drug sentencing laws that he says have led to outrageously long prison sentences for minorities. “Disproportionately we’ve incarcerated blacks and Latinos,” he told members of the Michigan Republican Party. “Something has to change, because the war on drugs has gone awry.”
Recently, Paul turned up at the University of California at Berkeley, traditionally a bastion of liberalism. He found a receptive audience of college Republicans and students that are more liberal for his assault on domestic spying by the Obama administration.
“I find it ironic that the first African-American president has without compunction allowed this vast exercise of raw power by the NSA,” Paul told the crowd, according to The New York Times. “Certainly J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal spying on Martin Luther King and others in the civil rights movement should give us all pause.”
Paul, 51, an ophthalmologist, arrived in the Senate with high aspirations and a reputation for narrow libertarian views that favored smaller government, limited spending and an isolationist approach to foreign policy and defense. He gained in stature by challenging Obama’s drone policies, and he has worked tirelessly to alter his image.
“Anywhere he can go and kind of find common ground with an audience that isn’t traditionally Republican, he takes that opportunity,” a Senate aide to Paul explained recently. “He’s willing to discuss policies that these audiences probably agree on. So he is hoping to maybe shift the focus from the ‘R’ or the ‘D’ next to the name and shift it more towards policies that we can all come together on and work on.”
This outreach is part of Paul’s effort to position himself as his party’s choice for the 2016 presidential nomination. On Friday, The Washington Post reported that Paul has become the first Republican to assemble a network of supporters in all 50 states as a run-up to the 2016 campaign. The Post called this “the latest sign that he is looking to build a more mainstream coalition than the largely ad hoc one that backed his father’s unsuccessful campaign.”
Paul’s nationwide organization counts more than 200 people, including many who previously funded more traditional Republicans as well as longtime libertarian activists. Paul has been courting Wall Street executives and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who donated to the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, according to The Post.
“At least Rand Paul is trying to broaden the GOP's base,” said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. “He deserves credit. Others within the party seem to think no changes are needed, despite all the demographic evidence to the contrary. If Republicans don't actively reach out to women, minorities, and the young, there is little chance they'll budge from their Democratic Party tilt.”
Paul is the son of Ron Paul, the former GOP House member from Texas and libertarian presidential candidate. Rand Paul enjoys vigorous support from the hard-core base of libertarians who backed his father, including many young people turned off by big government and privacy invasions.
Paul is also looking for common ground with liberal Democrats, blacks and Latinos. To some extent, he’s already made headway. The NAACP has invited Paul to address their organization and discuss economic freedom zones.
Shenna Bellows, a former American Civil Liberties Union official and a progressive Democratic challenger to Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), said she and Paul see eye-to-eye on many privacy issues and the NSA’s role.
Bellows told U.S. News & World Report: “I think he and I do share a lot in common in terms of our perspective on NSA surveillance and the USA Patriot Act, and I think it would be very exciting to work with Republicans in the Congress to restore our checks and balances, to restore our individual liberties.”
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