Rand Paul's 'Cigarette Tax' Comment Marks Another Shift In His Cop Violence Stance

Rand Paul found a new target in the latest death of an unarmed black man.
Photograph By: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

During an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews Wednesday night, Senator Rand Paul argued that the “bigger” issue represented by Eric Garner’s death at the hands of a police officer was the need for lower taxes on cigarettes. 

Matthews, who noted that Paul has “made a real effort to reach across the aisle in terms of minority support,” asked Paul “how we bridge the gap between white and black at this time, in these kinds of situations?”

Paul started by acknowledging the tragedy of Eric Garner’s death.

Well you know I think it’s hard not to watch that video of him saying ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe’ and not be horrified by it. But I think there’s something bigger than the individual circumstances. Obviously, the individual circumstances are important.

The issue “bigger” than Garner’s life was the fact that cigarettes are taxed in the first place. 

But I think it is also important to know that some politician put a tax of $5.85 on a pack of cigarettes so that driven cigarettes underground by making them so expensive. But then some politician also had to direct the police to say, ‘hey we want you arresting people for selling a loose cigarette.’ And for someone to die over breaking that law, there really is no excuse for it. But I do blame the politicians. We put our police in a difficult situation with bad laws.

It’s worth noting that Garner was only allegedly selling loose cigarettes on the day he died. 

Some on the left are calling Paul's remarks a 2016 dealbreaker. “Disqualifying?” tweeted Steve Benen at MSNBC. Clara Jeffery at Mother Jones called it “[d]isqualifying. And deeply stupid.” Joan Walsh, a writer at the left-leaning Salon, argued in a piece that Paul “wrecked his ’16 campaign” and his answer is “a huge part of why he will never be president.”

If Paul runs, he’s not going to be campaigning for the MSNBC/Salon vote, but his interview stands in contrast with his efforts to expand voting rights to disenfranchised ex-convicts, or make it easier for those released from prison to get jobs (both problems that disproportionately affect minority communities).

It also contradicts his Aug. 14 Time magazine essay published in the immediate aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting. In that piece, Paul acknowledged that if he’d been told to get out of the street as a teenager “I wouldn’t have expected to be shot,” and called for a demilitarization of the police forces.

In the same piece, Paul in fact touched on Mathews' original question.  “Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention,” Paul wrote. 

But by Nov. 25, in another Time essay, he’d shifted towards his current position. “In the search for culpability for the tragedy in Ferguson, I mostly blame politicians,” he wrote. “The War on Drugs has created a culture of violence and put police in a nearly impossible situation.”

A lot changed in those three months—a new autopsy showed that Brown likely didn’t have his hands up, and the Ferguson grand jury decided not to indict the officer who killed him. Paul has also come in for his share of criticism from right wing sites who accused him of “pandering” to black voters, and argued that should disqualify him from 2016.

“Paul has done advocates for demilitarization of police no favors by mimicking the Obama line that over-armed police represent symptoms of a broader racist police ill,” Ben Shapiro wrote at Breitbart. “And that nonsense will come back to bite him when he runs on a non-law-and-order platform in 2016.”

The question now is which Paul will show up in 2016: the man who is an “anti-tax libertarian…before he’s a civil rights libertarian,” as Walsh put it, or the one who is comfortable arguing that there’s a reason some minorities feel like they’re being targeted.

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