Commentary Magazine


Minority Voters and the GOP: Rand Paul’s Third Way

When confronted with the Republican Party’s poor standing among minority communities, GOP politicians have usually taken one of two approaches: claim these communities constitute “natural conservative constituencies” or advocate a broad change in policy or ideology to attract minority voters. Neither one of these tactics has been effective, for various reasons–chief among those reasons is that the communities under consideration are usually not “natural conservative constituencies.”

Take Hispanics, for example. It is often noted by GOP politicians that Hispanic immigrants are hard-working, family-oriented strivers who tend to be religious. That may be true, but polls showed that while Mitt Romney was generally trusted on the economy more than Barack Obama, Hispanics overwhelmingly trusted Obama on the economy. Whether or not Hispanics share a cultural or social conservatism with the GOP, then, becomes basically irrelevant. I wrote about one poll here that showed 73 percent of Hispanics preferred Obama to Romney on the economy, and 73 percent planned to vote for Obama. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

Conservatives also tried to convince themselves that since black voters were generally disapproving toward gay marriage, they would gravitate toward the GOP. But when it came to national elections, black voters weren’t basing their choices on gay marriage, and now African-American opposition to gay marriage is dropping anyway.

But there is a third way, in fact, to try to appeal to minority voters, and it was typified in Rand Paul’s speech to the predominantly black Howard University yesterday. This strategy may not work either, but it is certainly worth trying. Paul’s third way had two elements. The first, and obvious, one is to show up in the first place. Conservatives cannot expect minority voters to come to them; if you want someone’s vote, you have to prove it–and earn it.

In the Washington Post’s wrap-up of the 2012 presidential election, the paper noted that Paul Ryan, on the ticket as the vice presidential nominee, apparently “had wanted to talk about poverty, traveling to inner cities and giving speeches that laid out the Republican vision for individual empowerment.” The Romney campaign, according to the Post’s sources, was unconvinced. But Ryan had the right idea. (Rand Paul’s speech at Howard raises the question of why Ryan isn’t giving those speeches now that he’s no longer restrained by the top of a presidential ticket.)

As Romney’s disastrous “47 percent” remarks showed, if you appear utterly uninterested in someone’s vote, you’re probably not going to get it. But the second part of Paul’s approach at Howard, and the identifying element of his third way, has to do with policy. When Republicans address the issue of minority voters, they often come off as condescending. They tend to hold that minority voters simply don’t know that they should obviously be voting Republican, or that if they repeat the same message enough it’ll get through–both of which suggest ignorance on the part of the voter being addressed.

But as Rand Paul found out yesterday, these voters quite often do follow the policy fights in Washington and know exactly where they stand on the issues. Luckily, Paul came prepared. Though the students were skeptical of much of what Paul had to say, he did receive cheers for his advocacy of reforming mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenders. Mandatory minimums take sentencing discretion out of the hands of judges and often result in wildly disproportionate sentences that have a disparate impact on the black community.

About three weeks ago, Paul and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy introduced a bill that would provide a “safety valve” for drug sentencing, allowing the judge in some cases to levy far less jail time when the circumstances call for leniency. Additionally, while Paul doesn’t favor full legalization of marijuana, he is stridently opposed to the way those who use the drug are prosecuted. In a recent appearance on Fox News Sunday, Paul said:

Look, the last two presidents could conceivably have been put in jail for their drug use, and I really think, you know, look what would have happened, it would have ruined their lives. They got lucky, but a lot of poor kids, particularly in the inner city, don’t get lucky. They don’t have good attorneys, and they go to jail for these things and I think it’s a big mistake.

When California proposed legalizing marijuana in 2010, polling showed it had the support of two-thirds of the state’s black voters, and an NAACP official called it “a civil rights issue.” Paul also supports school choice, which tends to attract support from the black community in both red and blue states.

Paul was far from embraced by the students at Howard yesterday. But Republicans have to start by showing up. It’s a low-risk proposition anyway, since it’s unlikely Paul’s third way will fare any worse than its predecessors.

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