Rand Paul and the GOP's New Civil Rights Movement

How the senator's campaign might change the criminal justice debate.

Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, listens to a question during an interview at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 27, 2015.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is waking up to something fairly rare: Friendly fire against his outreach to black voters on criminal justice reform. In a walk-up to Paul's expected Tuesday announcement of a presidential bid, the Washington Post quotes Center for Neighborhood Enterprise President Bob Woodson, a frequent freelance tutor in poverty issues to Republicans.

"I find him superficial," says Woodson. "His talk about the militarization of police felt like pandering."

Like virtually everyone else in national politics, Paul has stopped talking about police militarization. (Police unions popped that particular trial balloon.) But as he readies for a five-state tour of his home state and early primary states, Paul is in the rare position of forcing criminal justice reform into a Republican presidential race. Since at least 2013, his office has collaborated with black leaders in Kentucky on voter restoration and economic development. His pre-campaign operation dodged all questions last week about the Iran deal and the red-state religious freedom laws, but his tour is going to take him to the University of Iowa, the sort of place where he typically leans in on criminal justice reform.

If Paul so chooses, he can cement the GOP's role in the reform push–a role that still benefits from the Nixon-to-China, fish-out-of-water coverage conservatives get for leading on reform. Just last week, a story in the New Republic that informed liberals of Georgia Governor Nathan Deal's role in reform and a Huffington Post story about Koch Industries' lobbying for voter rights got thousands of social media shares. Both shared the you're-not-gonna-believe this frame. Conservative reformers appreciate the attention; they're also concerned that the legislation can only pass if they, and not President Obama and civil rights leaders, are the faces of changes.

"If you build a big enough bipartisan majority in the Senate, it's going to pass," Newt Gingrich told reporters last month, at a daylong reform conference in Washington. "There's no question that with Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader McCarthy, Chairman Goodlatte, former Chairman Sensenbrenner, you have huge support in the House. But the trick is to put together a big bipartisan majority in the Senate–to have the president as a reinforcer, and a cheerleader, but have the president really have the patience to allow the legislative process to get a bill he can sign."

Gingrich's analysis could have come right from the work of Frances Lee, a University of Maryland political scientist who has researched how presidents can harden partisan opposition to a policy simply by coming out in favor of it. "Whatever people think about raw policy issues, they’re aware that presidential successes will help the president’s party and hurt the opposing party," Lee told Ezra Klein in 2012. “It’s not to say they’re entirely cynical, but the fact that success is useful to the President’s party is going to have an effect on how members respond."

You could say the same of the people most associated with civil rights causes, like Al Sharpton, whose advocacy can make issues toxic for conservatives. At the Washington conference, I talked with former New York City police commissioner Bernie Kerik, who did a stint in prison and is now basically a full-time reform advocate, about how conservatives could shift the movement away from attention-getting protests.

"All these civil rights leaders that came out, encouraging these protests based on Ferguson, or Eric Garner in New York– those were two events out of hundreds of thousands of interactions a year with the police," Kerik said. "Two events. You know what? What about this stuff, where there's over-incarceration, where you have an 800 percent increase in the federal prison population over the last 30 years. This country would be far better served by those civil rights leaders fighting for this cause and addressing this than doing what they're doing."

Paul's run is likely to elevate his reform push–he spent the early part of this year re-introducing bills he can talk about on the trail. The only risk for reformers is that the conservatives who turn on Paul for other reasons might look for vulnerabilities in how he advocated after Ferguson. In speeches, Paul often introduces the reform topic with some awkward words about how the facts of the Michael Brown case were controversial. The people angered by riots in Ferguson would go further, and say that the protests were based on fraud.

"From day one, the first time I was on CNN, hours after the event, I said: Don't be premature," said Kerik. "Wait for conclusions. Wait for evidence–wait for the grand jury. And people were all over the map, condemning the grand jury, condemning the officer, trying to confuse what happened without knowing what happened. We do that too often."

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