Magazine article The New Yorker

The Revenge of Rand Paul

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Revenge of Rand Paul

Article excerpt

THE REVENGE OF RAND PAUL

The Senator has fought to go mainstream with the ideology that he shares with his father. How far can that strategy take him?

At 8 A.M. on a Friday in late July, Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky, stood before a predominantly African-American audience of about a hundred at an Urban League conference in Cincinnati. An ophthalmologist before he was a senator, Paul has spent much of his career in surgical scrubs, but he was dressed nattily, in a charcoal suit and a red rep tie. His typically unkempt curls, which give him the look of a philosophy student lost in thought, were restrained with the help of a hair product. His aides had been promoting the talk for weeks, as part of a yearlong effort to reintroduce himself to political constituencies--on both the left and the right--that may have reason to distrust him. In the next few months, he is planning to deliver a major speech on foreign policy; like race, it is an area in which Paul has encountered strident opposition.

Paul began with the story of Clyde Kennard, a black man in Mississippi who was jailed in 1960 on false charges after he tried to enroll at an all-white college. "Despite our progress," Paul said, "there are Clyde Kennards today who can't fully access the franchise because they're handicapped by either educational or judicial systems." He laid out a criminal-justice-reform package he has introduced in the Senate to end mandatory minimum-sentencing laws, expunge nonviolent felonies from criminals' records, reclassify some felonies as misdemeanors, and restore voting rights to citizens who had committed a nonviolent felony. Like Barack Obama, he vowed to free many people imprisoned for crack cocaine, and he announced a new proposal to end the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. He had even spoken with the President about it--not something about which a Republican would normally boast: "I talked to him last week and said, 'I will help in any way I can.' "

Like many Republicans speaking before a black audience, Paul quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., but he also invoked Malcolm X. He declared, "I support the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act." If enacted, Paul's agenda would arguably do more to address issues that are important to the black community than anything that other members of his party are currently proposing. Cory Booker, of New Jersey, a Democrat and one of only two African-Americans in the Senate, is co-sponsoring part of Paul's reform package, and Harry Reid, the Democratic Majority Leader, has joined Paul's bill to restore voting rights to felons. No Republican senator has endorsed any of the legislation. "As a Christian, I believe in redemption," Paul told the crowd. "And I believe in second chances."

In some respects, Paul is to Republicans in 2014 what Barack Obama was to Democrats in 2006: the Party's most prized fund-raiser and its most discussed senator, willing to express opinions unpopular within his party, and capable of energizing younger voters. The Republican National Committee, which in 2008 refused to allow his father, Ron Paul, to speak at its Convention, recently solicited donations by offering supporters a chance to have lunch with Rand Paul. The only potential obstacle to a Paul Presidential candidacy in 2016 is his wife, Kelley. Douglas Stafford, Paul's top political adviser, said, "Unless Kelley says no, he's running." Steve Munisteri, the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, told me this summer, "He is objectively one of the three most likely people to get the nomination."

Yet, also like Obama at a similar stage in his career, Paul could be hobbled by past associations and statements, especially on race and foreign policy. He has questioned government attempts, including a core provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to address discrimination in the private sector. He has proposed dramatically slashing the Pentagon's budget and cancelling all foreign aid. …

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