WASHINGTON — Why should Republicans engage in outreach to African-Americans, even though the level of suspicion is so high and the yield in votes is likely to be so low?
Even among some reform-oriented conservatives, what might be called the Kemp project — after the late Rep. Jack Kemp, who spent a career engaged in minority outreach — is viewed as a secondary concern. They consistently pitch their approach toward the middle class — in part to distinguish it from previous iterations of compassionate or "bleeding heart" (Kemp's phrase) conservatism. The cover of the reform conservative manifesto — "Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class" — features a lawn mower on fresh-cut grass. The conservative rebirth will evidently spring from suburban yards on a lazy Saturday morning.
Yes, Republicans desperately require policies responsive to the economic anxieties of middle-income voters. Democrats are significantly more trusted on a variety of middle-class issues. But the public critique of the GOP is not merely: "They don't care enough about the middle class." It is, rather: "They don't care enough about the whole." The Republican task is not merely to shift an impression of interest-group allegiance away from big business and toward suburban families (though this would be an improvement). It is to demonstrate that conservative ideology is applicable to the common good.
In this effort, outreach to African-Americans is actually central. A party that does not forthrightly address the single largest source of division in American history and American life — now dramatized in the tear gas haze of Ferguson, Missouri — is not morally or intellectually serious. And even as a political matter, women voters, Catholic voters and younger voters would prefer a chief executive who seeks the interests of all Americans, including those unlikely to vote for him or her. A commitment to national unity is an indicator of public character. The Kemp project has never been more urgent for Republicans.
So it is notable when a Republican presidential prospect such as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky attempts to address issues of concern to African-Americans. In the context of Ferguson, Paul has emphasized his opposition to the overuse of prisons and the militarization of policing as expressions of "big government." One result has been a serious media crush. "He continues," by one account, "to set himself apart from others in the Republican Party with the hope of expanding the party's coalition."
Precisely because this effort is so important, it is also important to point out that the Kemp project, placed in Rand Paul's hands, would be an utter, counterproductive failure.
Kemp, you might remember, had both a personal history — as a pro-civil rights union representative in the American Football League — and a political ideology suited to outreach. He conceived an active role for government in empowering individuals and reclaiming urban communities.
Paul has his own history. He employed, as a close Senate aide, a writer who styled himself the "Southern Avenger" and who authored a column titled "John Wilkes Booth Was Right." This personnel decision would have been impossible to imagine from Kemp. But it points out the deep affinity between certain strains of libertarianism and the Lost Cause. While running for the Senate, Paul criticized the centerpiece of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the part desegregating public accommodations — because it conflicted with his libertarian conception of property rights. And Rand Paul, of course, worked for a presidential candidate in 2012, his father, Ron Paul, who claimed that the Civil Rights Act "violated the Constitution and reduced individual liberty" and argued that the Civil War was a senseless mistake.
Meanwhile, Paul's 2013 proposal for a balanced budget in five years — which would have eviscerated large portions of the federal government and weakened the social safety net — was less of a blueprint for reform than a demolition order.
Paul has risen to prominence by employing a political trick, which is already growing old. He emphasizes the sliver of his libertarianism that gets nods of agreement (say, rolling back police excesses) while ignoring the immense, discrediting baggage of his ideology (say, discomfort with federal civil rights law or belief in a minimal state incapable of addressing poverty and stalled mobility).
As a senator, this tactic has worked. But were Paul to become the GOP presidential nominee, the media infatuation would end, and any Democratic opponent would have a field day with Paul's disturbing history and cramped ideology. On racial issues, the GOP needs a successor to Kemp — and an alternative to Paul.
Michael Gerson's email address is [email protected].