Republicans Should Repudiate Rand Paul's Civil Rights Stand

Published May 21, 2010

Politics Daily

The best news Democrats received from Tuesday's election was not the victory of Mark Critz over Tim Burns in Pennsylvania's 12th District. It was the Senate primary victory in Kentucky of Republican Rand Paul, son of Rep. Ron Paul. The reason is that Democrats are going to take the views of the younger Paul, also a libertarian, and place them in bright neon lights. They understandably want him to become the face and intellectual representative of the modern GOP — especially on matters of race.

As much of the political world knows by now, Rand Paul has on several occasions indicated that he is opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, at least the element of it which said that private businesses cannot discriminate on the basis of race. On Wednesday, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow asked Paul, “Do you think that a private business has the right to say, 'We don't serve black people?'”

Paul responded: “Yes. I'm not in favor of any discrimination of any form. I would never belong to any club that excluded anybody for race. We still do have private clubs in America that can discriminate based on race. But I think what's important about this debate is not written into any specific 'gotcha' on this, but asking the question: What about freedom of speech? Should we limit speech from people we find abhorrent? Should we limit racists from speaking? I don't want to be associated with those people, but I also don't want to limit their speech in any way in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior because that's one of the things freedom requires is that we allow people to be boorish and uncivilized.”

In an interview Thursday morning with radio talk show host Laura Ingraham, Paul complained that his comments are being ginned up by the “loony left.” And Senate Republicans are now parroting Paul, saying that Maddow's question qualifies as a “gotcha question.” (Paul then issued a statement saying “unequivocally” that he “will not support any efforts to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” To which one can respond: Did anyone think he would attempt such a suicidal thing?)

Let's analyze Paul's response in ascending order of importance.

To begin with, Paul, when he's asked about his stand on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, looks (understandably) uncomfortable and evasive. From time to time he directly answers the questions posed to him — but in the process he hems and haws, bobs and weaves. He looks slightly embarrassed to say publicly what he believes philosophically. All of which makes him look like a “typical” politician rather than what he presents himself as: a new voice, a fresh face, a departure from tiresome political doublespeak.

Second, the question posed by Maddow is not a “gotcha” one at all, and to pretend that it is comes across as whiny, defensive, and childish.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a monumental piece of legislation, among the most important in American history. To be asked his views on such a matter is entirely legitimate and, in fact, it can (and in this case it does) offer an insight into the worldview and governing philosophy of a candidate. Paul and other leading Republicans should quit blaming the questioners because they don't like the questions — or, to be more precise, because they don't like the answers Paul has given.

Third, Paul's position, if not unequivocally disowned, will badly damage the GOP “brand.”

Every party tries to link its opposition's mainstream voices to those on its fringe, in order to discredit the entire party. That is what Democrats will now try. Relitigating the merits of civil rights laws of the early 1960s is exactly what the GOP doesn't want. And so it is up to Republicans to make crystal clear that while they may not disagree with most of the views held by Paul, on this matter they most emphatically do — and that the GOP as a party and as an institution strongly backs those civil rights laws. Hedging, trying to avoid the question, and attacking the press or calling attention to Paul's clarifications will only backfire. It is crucial that responsible voices within the GOP speak out now, right away, in a manner that is unambiguous. That means you, Sarah Palin (who endorsed Paul in the primary).

Fourth, and most important to me, is that Rand Paul's stand might potentially stain conservatism both as a philosophy and a political movement.

Here a crucial distinction is in order: Rand Paul is a libertarian, not a conservative. He harbors views that are much like his father, who is reflexively and recklessly anti-government. As my former White House colleague Michael Gerson points out in his column today, the libertarian commitment to individual freedom — defined as the absence of external constraint — is nearly absolute (which is why many libertarians support drug legalization and prostitution). The libertarian disdain for government also extends to America's role in the world, which is why there is a strong impulse toward a minimalist global engagement by America or even isolationism. Such views might sound fine when confined to position papers issued by think tanks, but they don't have any traction with the broader public. There is a reason that no prominent and influential American politician is a libertarian (Ron Paul, in my judgment, has marginal influence on policy and national politics).

An interesting historical footnote: William F. Buckley, Jr., in an essay written in the 1960s, directly confronted the libertarian/Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. “The conservative's distrust of the state, so richly earned by it, raises inevitably the question, how far can one go?”, Buckley wrote. He went on to warn against those “whose passionate distrust for the state has developed into a theology of sorts, or at least into a demonology; to which they adhere as devotedly as any religious fanatic ever attempted to adhere to the will of the Lord.”

As for the 1964 Civil Rights Act itself: It was, from a conservative perspective, an estimable and honorable achievement. Conservatism, at least the current of conservative thought shaped by Edmund Burke, believes that government must take into account facts on the ground. Indeed, conservatism properly understood is the antithesis of an ideology: It shapes itself to human nature and human events and places a premium on prudence (one of the four cardinal virtues). It rejects an unbending and uncompromising allegiance to a principle at the expense of others and regardless of the real world impact of upholding that principle – including, in this instance, the principle that a private business can discriminate against people based on race. Government has an affirmative duty to act when its citizens are being treated as if they are sub-human.

To those who say that conceding this power to government places us on a slippery slope, it must be pointed out (again) that most of life is lived on slippery slopes. We can all come up with examples where, if a law is passed and then pushed to its absolute extreme, bad things will happen. But governing is about responsible legislators drawing lines and making wise and mature distinctions. It understands, for example, that laws mandating wearing seat belts and using car seats for infants is not the beginning of the end of liberty.

Slavery and segregation are the great sins of American history — and in the 1960s the federal government, in placing the full force and power of our laws against racial discrimination, did a wonderful thing. To understand why, it is worth consulting one of the great documents in American history: Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham City Jail.

King, one
of history's four most eloquent advocates of the American dream (the others being Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln), was serving a jail sentence for participating in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham. His letter responded to an open letter by eight prominent Alabama clergymen, all white, calling King's activities “unwise and untimely.” In the course of his response, King wrote this:

A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority…. [S]egregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.

For those conservatives unmoved by the logic and moral force of Dr. King, they might consider the logic and moral force of George F. Will, a man of impeccable conservative credentials.

Will, in his 1983 book “Statecraft As Soulcraft: What Government Does,” points out that segregationists like Lester Maddox, a proprietor of the Pickrick Restaurant in Atlanta before he was governor of Georgia, was exercising a real right when he denied service to black patrons. But that right had to be weighed against other, competing rights. And so in 1964 Congress, in Will's words, “undertook a small but significant rearrangement of American rights. It diminished the rights of proprietors of public accommodations, and expanded those of potential users of those accommodations.”

Will goes on to write this:

The simple truth is that in 1964, because of brave and skillful symbolic actions by civil rights forces shaping public opinion, an American majority was unusually aroused and conscious of what Congress was doing. Congress was coming to the conclusion that a right exercised meanly, with ugly consequences, should yield to another, better right.

The great civil rights legislation of the 1960s was, of course, designed primarily to improve the condition of the descendants of slaves. But it had another purpose. It was supposed to do what it in fact did. It was supposed to alter the operation of the minds of many white Americans. The most admirable achievement of modern liberalism — desegregation, and the civil rights acts — were explicit and successful attempts to change (among other things) individuals' moral beliefs by compelling them to change their behavior. The theory was that if government compelled people to eat and work and study and play together, government would improve the inner lives of those people.

That is a deeply conservative, and deeply American, insight. I wish Rand Paul shared it. The fact that he doesn't is bad enough. The party of Lincoln should not be complicit in his offense.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.

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