In his efforts to court new audiences, or to bring what he calls “tough love” to friendly ones, Rand Paul is aiming for a bigger, broader base than Ron Paul—or, for that matter, Mitt Romney—ever captured. But though he has staked out more moderate or traditionally Republican positions than his father, at his core, Rand retains the same pre–New Deal vision of hyper-minimalist government and isolationist foreign policy. In other words, Paul has managed to take the essence of his father’s radical ideology—more radical than that of any modern presidential candidate—and turn it into a plausible campaign for the Republican nomination...
[F]or someone not temperamentally suited to politicking, Paul learns with impressive speed. An adviser McConnell dispatched from Washington to help with Paul’s Senate bid told me that Paul had been eager to improve and has “gotten much better over time.” For one thing, he has become noticeably more skilled in giving interviews. Before, he frustrated staffers with his earnest libertarian need to answer every question; today, he understands that it’s only in his interests to answer the ones he wants.
The most striking adaptation I witnessed followed a speech Paul gave at Howard University, the historically black college in Washington, D.C. Paul, spiritedly quoting Toni Morrison, informed the students that Republicans had once been the party of the abolitionists and Democrats the party of Jim Crow. He inquired, “How many of you, if I were to have said, ‘Who do you think the founders of the NAACP were,’ did you think they were Republicans or Democrats?”
Unfortunately for Paul, the students did know that the founders were Republicans and were not shy about letting him know that they knew. “Which Republican Party are you talking about?” one asked. “The party of Lincoln or the party of Nixon?” Another challenged him on his stance on the Civil Rights Act. Paul could not give satisfying answers to either question. Most students I spoke to described his visit as “condescending.” “You’re coming to Howard University, and you’re telling us about the history of black people?” one young woman said. “Toni Morrison quotes?” another asked. “Really?” (A Paul adviser later admitted, “It was probably an infield single, but at least he got on base.”)
But two days later in Louisville, Paul made a less-publicized visit to Simmons, another historically black college, and this time, he took a humbler approach. He turned down the podium, preferring to sit in a circle with students, professors, and members of the community. “I want to learn from you,” he said. For the most part, he avoided the intertwining histories of African Americans and the Republican Party. Instead, he turned most questions back on the questioners, asking politely for their opinions.
And rather than try to prove that the Republican Party had been good to blacks once upon a time, he focused on how the Republican Party could be good to them today. He talked about decriminalizing drug offenses and getting rid of the mandatory sentencing minimums that put so many young black men in jail. He talked about fixing the local school system, about not abolishing Pell grants “as long as it’s in the context of spending what you have.” To approving nods, he talked about how urban renewal had really meant “urban destruction” and about how “they tore down a lot of black businesses so people would go to white stores.” He found that this crowd, if not totally convinced, was receptive. Though he would still not give them a definitive answer on his position on the Civil Rights Act, he did say that he believed federal intervention had been justified. “I’m not a firm believer in democracy,” he explained. “It gave us Jim Crow.”
Paul may be working assiduously to tailor his message to constituencies unfamiliar to the modern GOP, but he also makes sure not to neglect the most ardent members of his base. The day after his Simmons appearance, I saw him address a “Freedom to Fish” rally at the Barkley Dam in western Kentucky. The dam was a favorite local fishing spot, and the locals were challenging a plan by the Army Corps of Engineers to install barriers to keep people from drowning in the turbulent tailwaters. “You know, sometimes, I think the government in Washington thinks we’re just too dumb to take care of ourselves,” Paul told the cheering crowd. “They think that, somehow, they have a monopoly on knowledge.”
Afterward, he was mobbed by a stream of fans who thanked him for everything from the filibuster to just being Rand Paul. “I want to tell you how much I appreciate y’all standing up for our rights against these jerks,” one man said. Another leaned in conspiratorially as he shook the senator’s hand. “I admire your moxie in speaking to these black college kids,” he said knowingly, referring to the Howard speech.
It was Paul’s natural, government-off-my-back constituency, but he wasn’t shy about his grander ambitions. “You gotta present ideas in a way that it brings more people to it,” he told the scrum of supporters, not concealing his impatience to get in his car and rush home to Bowling Green. Nor, he said, is he stopping at Iowa and New Hampshire, where his father had blazed a path before him. “We gotta win Illinois and New York state and California,” he said, “and those are hard.”
Read the rest of Julia Ioffe's excellent article here.