Kentucky GOP Senator Rand Paul brought the house down at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference for the second year in a row. There were shouts and cheers from the adoring throng at every word Paul uttered. And he again was the crowd's top vote getter in the presidential straw poll. Presumably, the big boost Paul got from the CPAC crowd will count for a lot in the hunt for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. And that's the problem for the GOP. Paul may well be the best candidate that the GOP can field in a presumed match up against almost certain Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton. He's certainly been working hard at it. He's hammered President Obama on the NSA spying scandal. The aim is to shore up his credentials as an arch defender of civil liberties, and an arch enemy of government security abuses. He made some faint soundings about being for comprehensive immigration reform. This was a nod toward Hispanic voters. He then confounded his party's unreconstructed Cold Warriors by opposing new and tougher sanctions on Iran.
While this doesn't exactly mark Paul as a GOP centrist, let alone moderate, on the issues it does seemingly take just enough of the hard right edge off Paul to make him appear to be a candidate who might have broader voter appeal. But Paul's mix of moderation and common sense on some of the crucial issues is grossly misleading. He's still a hard right conservative. The CPAC crowd would not have cheered him lustily at their convention if that wasn't the case. Even though he played hard on some stock libertarian talking points about individual freedom, liberty and rights, there's absolutely no hint that he's broke rank with the hard right on gay rights, abortion, school vouchers, opposing tough environmental protections, gun control, spending, the Affordable Care Act, hacking up Social Security, and Medicare. Even on national security issues where Paul has fronted himself off as no knee jerk militarist, he still made it clear in a piece on the hard right website Breitbart.com that "national defense should be the primary Constitutional role of the federal government." Despite his budget cutting reputation defense, he noted, should be the largest part of any budget.
But there's a bigger problem in Paul's concerted presidential contender remake, he still hasn't renounced his widely quoted smoking gun interview with the Louisville Courier Journal , a few years back, in which he blew off the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a slap against private businesses' right to racially discriminate. He had a second and third chance to eat his words in two separate interviews after his Senate primary win. He blew both. He did the obligatory disavowal of racism, but did not back away from his belief that the Civil Rights Act went way too far in telling private businesses that they couldn't racially discriminate. Even if Paul didn't trash the Civil Rights Act, his odd mish mash of ultra-conservatism and libertarian pronouncements would mark him as racially suspect. A cornerstone of the jumble is his view of government and what it should or should not do about civil rights.
Paul firmly holds that government should have minimal or better still no role in civil rights laws and enforcement. The government passed and enforced civil rights laws, did nothing to solve the country's racial ills, and worse, fueled even more racial polarization, he says. That old, worn, and thoroughly discredited view still warms the hearts of the packs of closet bigots who pine for the old days when racial and gender discrimination was the American norm and government did little to protect black and gay rights.
Paul pretty much said the same thing in the Courier-Journal interview. Any other time and place in recent American politics that would instantly make him unfit to hold any state or national office. And those who defend his view would be branded as bigots and crackpots. But Paul banks that voters have short memories. And to ensure that this part of his past won't come back to haunt him on the 2016 presidential campaign trail, he has seemingly embraced the mantra of diversity and inclusion. He's given speeches at Howard University, to an African-American group in Detroit, and even gotten some praiseworthy words from a few of his home state African-American ministers about his sincerity in wanting to make the GOP more than just a good ole white guys party.
This is good political theater that makes good photo-ops and gets the tongues wagging about whether Paul is really presidential stuff. His CPAC speech didn't do anything to dampen that talk and in the run up to the 2016 GOP primary season, Paul's name almost certainly will be shouted more and more as the one candidate that can give Hillary or any other Democratic presidential contender a legitimate run for their money. Though given the baggage that Paul carries from the past and the present, this is still so much wishful thinking.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson