How can someone be this clueless about politics whilst running for the Senate?
Tea Party hero Rand Paul scrambled Thursday to tamp down the growing firestorm over his criticism of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.It seems to me that Paul is trying to have an intellectual and philosophical argument as he's running for office in the real world and that intellectual honesty, while surprisingly refreshing, is biting him in the ass as a result. His main point is that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was obviously a good thing and ensured equal rights for all Americans but that it also impinged on the individual rights of business owners and others by forcing them to accommodate black people and other minorities as well as whites. And this is all true. His problem is that he's arguing historically unpopular points and he's being extraordinarily tone deaf about the impact of those points at the same time.
The new Republican Senate nominee from Kentucky released a rambling statement amid calls to explain comments that he would have opposed a central tenet of the landmark law: forcing private businesses to integrate.
"I support the Civil Rights Act because I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination," Paul said Thursday.
In interviews Wednesday, Paul said that while he opposed discrimination, he thought "a lot of things could be handled locally."
The remark was at odds with history: Before the 1960s civil rights laws, white segregationists had an iron grip on local and state governments throughout the South.
Yes, the Civil Rights Act did limit personal freedom in certain ways but those limits were made necessary by a national history of slavery and a time of extreme racial tensions. It's all well and good to argue that Libertarian principles and personal freedom should be the goal of a truly equal society and if this were a purely academic argument set outside of history and culture it might sound pretty convincing but we've already tried that philosophy out in the crucible of the real world and it failed miserably. The freedom to discriminate against anyone as it applies to one's place of business led not to more equality but rather to more racism and more oppression of minorities and as time went on it became obvious that only the federal government had the ability to adequately right these historical inequities.
We see the same denial of historic evidence as it pertains to the war on illegal drugs: even though we have a perfect historical corollary in the failure of Prohibition to show that this attempt at social engineering categorically does not work there are still millions of short-sighted individuals who simply refuse to examine history and make this logical deduction. The difference here is that while supporting the failed drug war is still a popular political stance to take in many circles speaking out against the Civil Rights Act, even if just in theory, is an extremely unpopular thing to do in practically every venue and it's almost unthinkable if one wishes to be elected to national office. Regardless of the intellectual point that Paul is trying to illustrate (and I understand and agree with that point, if only on principle), to try and make it during a national Senate bid is naive at best and politically suicidal at worst. In the end I doubt that Paul will lose this race because people perceive him as a racist as a result of this controversy; whether he loses it because he's proven himself a clueless dumbass remains yet to be seen.
[Update: Ezra Klein has a few questions concerning Paul's strict Libertarian views:
...unfortunately for Paul, this isn't over. Not by a long shot. There is a category of scandal that I call "area politician believes kooky but harmless thing." A candidate who thinks he was abducted by UFOs would fit here. It's weird, but it doesn't have many implications for public policy. What's gotten Paul in trouble, however, is that he's so skeptical of government power that he's not even comfortable with the public sector telling private businesses that they can't discriminate based on race. That, I fear, does have public policy implications.This is the problem with pure Libertarianism and it's the reason Libertarians never get more than a few percentage points in elections: their principles are largely untenable in the real world. Personal freedom is a great thing and I'm all for having hypothetical intellectual arguments but allowing institutional racial discrimination or going back to the gold standard are absurd ideas in a modern society. Plus, Paul isn't even as ideologically rigid as he comes off: he has lately said that he would not leave abortion to the states, he doesn't believe in legalizing drugs like marijuana and cocaine, he'd support federal drug laws and he's ignored the regulatory and safety corner cutting that allowed the BP disaster to occur in the Gulf by stating that "sometimes accidents happen". The only thing worse than a strict unbending Libertarian is someone who arbitrarily believes in personal freedoms only when they suit him personally. And we've all seen what that looks like, haven't we?]
For instance: Can the federal government set the private sector's minimum wage? Can it tell private businesses not to hire illegal immigrants? Can it tell oil companies what safety systems to build into an offshore drilling platform? Can it tell toy companies to test for lead? Can it tell liquor stores not to sell to minors? These are the sort of questions that Paul needs to be asked now, because the issue is not "area politician believes kooky but harmless thing." It's "area politician espouses extremist philosophy on issue he will be voting on constantly."
[Update II: One of Andrew Sullivan's readers sums up the position of intellectual theory versus real world practice better than I:
There are no purely intellectual positions for people who wish to be elected to government office. The consequences of their philosophies must be their responsibility. Balancing intellectual ideals with the reality of human action is what we expect from our leaders.People tell me all the time that I should run for some type of political office, and I echo Sullivan in replying that this is one reason why I haven't. Yet.]