Last week, Senator Rand Paul delivered remarks likening mandatory minimum sentencing to Jim Crow; he then rallied to get voting rights restored for convicted felons. These stances come on the heels of his tacit approval of President Obama’s handling of the Syrian conflict. Together, Paul's positions bring an interesting turn to his relatively short political career: he is gaining favor among African Americans and young voters, where his conservative counterparts have failed.
Republicans were slammed in the 2012 presidential election for their racist, homophobic, and misogynistic image. Blacks, Latinos, gays, women, and young people feared a Republican leader unable and unwilling to address their concerns. Rand Paul is trying to change this narrative, and with bold and reasoned stances on sentencing reform and voting rights, I think he’s on the right path.
This is not to say that Paul is liberal or even center-right. According to his website, he is pro-life, pro-gun, and anti-Obamacare. His stance on gay marriage is murky at best, although his vitriolic hatred for a woman’s right to choose is more clear. He’s a strong believer in unchecked corporate growth and minimal government intervention. He’s a libertarian, with no plans of compromising his values to fit into a cookie-cutter mold that is current political discourse.
Although a newcomer on Capitol Hill, he’s already making a splash on the national stage, winning two straw polls this year. He’s already on the short list of 2016 presidential hopefuls, and his growing celebrity status is adding to his appeal.
Although he is a far-right conservative, he understands that more minorities and millennials in the electorate means more votes. While I believe his views on sentencing and voting reforms are genuine, I’d be foolish to forget that he’s a politician. His efforts to include minorities and young people into his political realm is tactical.
In April, Paul visited Howard University and spoke frankly about how the GOP is failing to recapture black voters. Paul is the first Republican to speak at the campus since Colin Powell in 1994. He held true to his libertarian principles, but cleverly expressed how his views work to the benefit of the black population.
And: he’s right. Sentencing reform is an issue that not only disproportionately affects minorities, but also increases the role of government. And that’s why Paul is making sentencing reform key issue; it solidifies his standing with black voters while appealing to his young, libertarian base.
Paul’s black-inclusion strategy didn’t end at Howard. His recent tour of black neighborhoods in Kentucky is another indicator of his desire to court black voters. What’s admirable about this campaign is that it’s one of direct action. No conferences, no pamphlets, no sloganeering. He is literally going into black communities, reaching out to black leaders, and hearing black grievances. Additionally, he's pushing actual legislation on the issue. Plus, let’s not forget that Attorney General Eric Holder is on board with sentence reform, so again Paul is showing broad appeal and the willingness to work across the aisle.
Where other conservative mouthpieces offer disingenuous “re-branding" campaigns, Paul is in the streets, getting work done. He is proving to black voters that he is ready for black inclusion, not just for the sake of votes or image, but in the interest of American economic viability. Rand Paul is not making this just another “black” issue; he’s making an economic one in which a variety of cultural groups have stakes.
And young voters like it. We care about economic potency. Lessening sentences for nonviolent drug offenses is right up our alley — a full 76% of 18- to 29-year-olds think enforcing marijuana laws is wasteful. Young voters understand the American future needs to rely less on antiquated social convictions, and more on pragmatism. Young voters are more critical of government and we are searching for viable options to reduce constant partisan bickering.
Rand Paul may be it.