Sen. Rand Paul R-Ky. delivered an effective speech at Howard University, even though he rhetorically stumbled at points.
The audience was mostly silent through Paul’s prepared speech, which highlighted traditional Republican policies such as school choice, free markets, and limited government.
Paul’s more libertarian ideas, however, appeared to resonate with the audience, as they applauded for his views on reduced jail penalties for non-violent drug users and a more humble foreign policy.
“Republicans are often miscast as uncaring or condemning of kids who make bad choices,” Paul said. “I, for one, plan to change that.”
Paul admitted that Republicans had failed to highlight the importance of their rich heritage of supporting civil rights, which was part of the reason he decided to give a speech.
Paul created a stir when he asked the students if they were aware that the NAACP was founded by Republicans – a line that the crowd apparently perceived as insulting.
The audience also laughed when Paul forgot the name of Edward Brooke when he tried to cite the black Massachusetts senator who was a graduate of Howard University.
Paul admitted that people told him he was either “brave or crazy” for speaking at a historically black college, especially after the controversial comments he made about the Civil Rights Act during an MSNBC interview with Rachel Maddow in 2010.
“Here I am a guy who once presumed to discuss a section of the Civil Rights Act,” Paul said, admitting that “it didn’t go so well.”
The audience, however, had this event in mind, as a student accused Paul during the Q-and-A session of believing in the federal government’s legal right to discriminate against individuals.
“I’ve never been against the Civil Rights Act,” Paul stated flatly in response. “Ever.”
After the audience was silent in response, the host of the event encouraged Paul to explain his position further, reminding him that “this was on tape.”
Paul responded that he was only concerned about certain portions of the Civil Rights Act that were beyond race.
His attempt to explain earned him a little bit of applause from the audience but it perhaps he should have been more prepared to address the topic.
Paul made an effective argument that Republicans weren’t targeting black voters by requesting a photo I.D. in order to vote – insisting that it was different from the Southern Democrat “literacy tests” of the 1850′s.
“I think that if you liken using a driver’s license to a literacy test, you demean the horror of what happened,” he stated.
During the Q-and-A session one student suggested there were two Republican parties, one of the party of Abraham Lincoln and civil rights – and the other the party of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
After the audience applauded the question, Paul argued that there wasn’t any difference between the two historical eras of Republicans, but that the party had failed to talk about it enough.
Judging by the audience’s response, Paul perhaps should have spent less time talking about Republicans and their role in civil rights movement to students who likely had the facts fresh in their mind from their history classes.
Instead, Paul probably should have done more to diffuse accusations of racism within the modern Republican party and asked the students themselves how the party was perceived.
At the end of the event, a student challenged Paul’s belief that government should just “leave us alone,” and suggested that he wanted a government that could help him go to college.
Paul’s response to the question relied heavily on the federal government’s budget and deficit numbers that perhaps sounded a bit cynical for a young man who saw government as his path to opportunity.
In the end, Paul’s humble demeanor and earnest approach probably saved him from any embarrassing boos or ridicule – such as Mitt Romney’s speech to the NAACP during the presidential campaign.
Paul deserves credit for reaching out, but his effort illustrated that more Republicans need to spend more time speaking and listening to the black community.