Rand Paul came to Chicago yesterday and did something a Republican thinking about running for president typically wouldn’t do: subject himself to a nearly hour-long grilling by the one-time chief political strategist for President Barack Obama.
“You are an intriguing person,” David Axelrod, the former White House senior adviser, now leading the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, said at the start of his on-stage conversation with the U.S. senator from Kentucky.
Paul, a favorite of the limited-government Tea Party movement who is considering a bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, used stops in Chicago -- Obama’s hometown -- as the latest venues in offering himself as a different kind of Republican pushing his party to grow beyond its base.
He spoke last year in Washington at historically black Howard University and to a U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce meeting, and at the Detroit Economic Club, where he argued for “economic freedom zones” for blighted urban areas and income-tax cuts for places with high unemployment.
During his appearance at the university where Obama once taught law, Paul praised yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling that dealt a blow to affirmative action by upholding a voter-approved ban on racial preferences in admissions at Michigan’s state-run universities.
“There was a time when we had done such terrible things in our country that there really needed to be special protections,” he said. “We’ve come a long way, and I think really that the time in which justice can be colorblind is now, as far as admissions and things like that.”
Paul also expressed skepticism about global warming, saying the political debate on the topic has been “dumbed down beyond belief,” and that a greater balance is needed between environmental regulation and jobs.
“Over periods of time -- long periods of time -- the climate changes,” he said. “I’m not sure anybody exactly knows why.”
Although his opinion runs counter to the majority of scientists studying the issue, Paul said data has been gathered over such a small portion of Earth’s history that it’s hard to know with certainty that humans are changing weather patterns.
“We have to balance the desire for as clean an atmosphere as we can get -- and as clean water as we can get -- with jobs,” he said. “In the last 40 years, we have gone completely crazy and out of balance with onerous regulations.”
Throughout his daylong visit to Chicago, Paul championed greater local control of education and called for the elimination of the U.S. Education Department.
“I don’t think you would notice if the whole department were gone tomorrow,” he told Axelrod.
Paul was mild in his criticism of another potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who angered some in the party’s base by describing undocumented workers who enter the U.S. as seeking to provide for their families in an “act of love.”
“I think he’s well intentioned in what he’s trying to say,” Paul said. “I would have said that people who seek the American dream are not bad people, but that doesn’t mean we can invite the whole world.”
Paul, 51, said he supports expanding worker visas for undocumented workers already in the country.
“So you would allow these people to pay a fine and get at the back of the line and work their way to citizenship?” Axelrod asked.
“Right,” Paul said.
The senator said he realizes his party has much work ahead in its efforts to win more minority voters.
“To be a viable majority party, we have to change the African-American vote, the Hispanic vote, the Asian-American vote, you name it,” he said.
Earlier in the day, during an appearance at a private school, Paul called for expanded school choice for poor and minority children.
“We’ve been trying the same thing in education for 50 to 100 years,” he said. “Education, particularly in our big cities, has been a downward spiral, so I think just throwing more money at the problem hasn’t fixed the problem.”
Minority and urban voters overwhelmingly backed Obama in the 2012 election, and Republicans have been searching for ways to blunt the Democratic advantage with blacks and with Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.
Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in his race against Republican Mitt Romney, exit polls showed. That translated to a 44-percentage-point advantage over Romney, who won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote -- down from 31 percent for the party’s presidential ticket in 2008, 44 percent in 2004 and 35 percent in 2000.
The charter school expansion Paul backed yesterday is popular among many Republicans. What’s unique is the emphasis he’s placing on how it could help disadvantaged minority students in America’s urban areas.
“No one in Washington really is very good at education and knows anything about education,” Paul said at Josephinum Academy, an all-female Catholic high school northwest of Chicago’s downtown, with a student population that’s just 5 percent non-Hispanic whites. “They should have very little to do with your education. These decisions should be made in Chicago, in Illinois, in Kentucky, but not in Washington.”
Paul heads to Milwaukee today for another event spotlighting school choice and will travel later in the week to Boston to meet some top Romney donors. Romney’s former national finance chairman, Spencer Zwick, will make some introductions.
Paul won the presidential preference straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, an annual gathering that attracts parts of the Republican Party’s base. It was the second such victory in as many years for Paul and boosted his standing among the party’s more than half-dozen prospective 2016 presidential contenders.
He’s often near the top in early national polls in what’s shaping up to be one of the most wide-open Republican nomination races in the last five decades. A Fox News poll released last week showed him at 14 percent, essentially tied with Bush and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at firstname.lastname@example.org Don Frederick, Pete Young