Ron Paul, on the eve of his first test in a real election, was hit in January 2008 by an article in The New Republic charging him with being a racist. And now Rand Paul, his son, right after winning the Kentucky primary to become the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, has been hit by a barrage of stories on the question of whether he is a racist.
People on the political Right ought to know this. For their persuasion, race is the poison topic. The charge of racism is their kryptonite. If you are a candidate, you do not expose yourself to it.
The elder Paul apparently did it by farming out the editorial work on a money-raising newsletter while he was out of political office in the early ’90s. Some racially sensitive stuff his employees wrote came back to bite him, 17 years later. Given the campaigns he’d run and the stands he’d taken in the 1990s and 2000s, to call him racist wasn’t fair. But it was his fault.
The younger Paul started it by telling the Louisville Courier-Journal that he didn’t support that part of the Civil Rights Act that forbade private racial discrimination. There is a libertarian argument for this, about the freedom of association, but to the American ear, it doesn’t play. Our culture abhors racial discrimination. It makes no difference that if the law were repealed, the taboo would remain, and anyone who wanted to redo Jim Crow on his private property would find himself isolated. That is not the point. The point is motive. Why would a politician come out in favor of a private right to discriminate? To whom is he trying to appeal?
There are two explanations for Rand Paul’s statement. One is abstract and complicated, and the other is simple. I assume the abstract one is the true one. But there is a rhetorical law of Occam’s Razor. The simple explanation is the one that sticks, particularly if it is nasty — and in politics there are always people who want it to stick. They are not trying to be fair. They are trying to win.