After winning Kentucky's Republican primary, the last thing the Tea Party darling needed was a fight over Civil Rights.
That giant sucking sound you hear is the sound of the great debate promised by Rand Paul's quixotic Senate candidacy slowly circling the drain. After all, why would anyone bother to sort through deficits, taxes and the role of modern American government? They can just go on The Rachel Maddow Show and have a good, old-fashioned argument about whites-only lunch counters instead.
Less than 24 hours after Paul—eye doctor, first-time candidate, Tea Party darling, small-"L" libertarian and Kentucky's new Republican U.S. Senate candidate—declared in his primary victory speech that he's "come to take our government back," he stuck one of his regular-guy, outside-the-beltway Rockports in his mouth, telling MSNBC's Maddow that he's not opposed—Constitution-wise, at least—to private sector racial discrimination.
Libertarians should be pretty disappointed. Their golden boy has already stepped all over their message of gold-backed currency, repealing Obamacare, and getting out of Afghanistan.
Paul said he supports most of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but defended the right of the private sector to discriminate based on race, all while assuring Maddow that he "would have marched with Martin Luther King." A day later he walked his comments back, grudgingly telling CNN's Wolf Blitzer that he'd have voted for the law, because "there was an overriding problem in the South so big that it did require federal intervention in the '60s."
It shouldn't be news to anyone that Paul is uncomfortable with Title II of the Civil Rights Act. It also shouldn't be news that a self-styled libertarian is no good at translating his small-government beliefs into practical application in the real world. He'd likely defend your right to be racist as strongly as he'd defend gay marriage or legalized weed, but he's also afflicted with what True/Slant's Jamelle Bouie describes as libertarians' "incredibly blinkered view of oppression and liberty."
He told Maddow, "When you blur the distinction between public and private ownership, it really is a problem." Fair enough. But then by way of a not-so-helpful analogy, he blurred the First and Second Amendments by comparing the infringement of the right of a private country club to segregate with the government barring restaurants from prohibiting patrons to enter their premises with guns:
You can almost admire Paul's attempt to stand his ideological ground. At least initially, he resisted the political impuse to say, ''oh, sure,'' he'd have voted for the Civil Rights Act. But if Paul thinks that he's the one to take libertarians prime time, he needed to make it clear that regardless of his personal philosophy, he understands that at the time the Civil Rights Act was passed, public and private discrimination both served to economically disenfranchise nonwhites for generations—and the after-effects of that disenfranchisement still count.
Rand Paul has to figure out that he doesn't get the luxury of being a quirky, third party protest candidate. As The Cato Institute's David Boaz wrote for Reason last month, if libertarians ''want to attract people who are not straight white men to the libertarian cause, we'd better stop talking as if we think the straight white male perspective is the only one that matters.'' And if Paul really wants to be pure ideologically, someone should tell him that the libertarian view puts him a lot closer to Malcolm X than it does to MLK.
Paul's Democratic opponent, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, has already jumped on Paul's comments as a wedge issue for November. It might be good politics in the short term—but it's ultimately a waste of time for liberals to make their stand against Paul on his civil rights comments.
For every voter offended by Paul's comments, there's another one who will be offended by the backlash. Liberals would serve themselves and the electorate better if they forced Paul to discuss and debate his economic policy positions—and if they came up with a more cohesive economic message of their own. While Maddow spent 20 minutes of air Wednesday night throwing another log on the national conversation on race, her cable news rival, Bill O'Reilly, was asking Paul about Iran, TARP and budget deficits. And that's actually where Paul looked shakier, taking decidedly anti-libertarian positions across the board.
He didn't have any problem infringing on a woman's right to choose on abortion. He left military force on the table as a possible response to an Iranian nuclear threat. He fudged on what he'd do to solve the banking crisis, coming in with a stale diagnosis of "zero-interest loans" as the culprit for the financial sector collapse.
In other words, he didn't say anything that you wouldn't hear from the Democrats or Republicans in Congress from whom he's ''taking government back.'' Contrast Paul with his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), the Libertarian Party's 1988 presidential nominee, who only needs two minutes in any interview to scold the Fed, trash the Euro, and argue that Iran is arming itself in response to U.S. imperialism. The younger Paul's willingness to go down swinging with a self-immolating, ''pure'' libertarian stance on civil rights while hedging his bets on defense and fiscal policy is "Bush" league. It's a poor reflection on him and his beliefs.
This is the debate liberals, conservatives and those in the middle should want to have—not the civil rights sideshow. Are ''small government'' Republicans like Paul pitching small-''L'' libertarianism—cutting taxes and spending—or are they just repackaging mainline conservatism with tax cuts, corporate handouts, and bankrolling wars on credit? Apparently, we're going to have to wait a little longer to find out.
It's a let-down for the entire process. Paul's amateur hour means we didn't learn anything about how he and other self-styled Tea Party candidates would deal with the economy, shrink the national debt, or wind down the wars. Instead, we're arguing whether a guy we would've never heard of if his name was ''Paul Rand'' supports a 46-year-old law. Knowing Rand Paul's thoughts about The Civil Rights Act is useful, but not surprising. He doesn't sound like a racist. But he doesn't sound like much of a libertarian, either.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.