What Rand Paul Doesn't Get About Abe Lincoln, Abe Vigoda, and Black Voters

His version of the GOP has about as much in common with the one that helped free the slaves as Abe Lincoln has with Abe Vigoda.

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Rand Paul tried to woo black voters with a wide-ranging speech at Howard University.

Here's something that someone might want to share with Rand Paul. Abraham Lincoln was a president. Abe Vigoda was an actor. The fact that they both have the same first name, does not make them the same person.

That may seem obvious to you, but it's something that I feel compelled to share. Because after listening to his Howard University speech, I'm not sure it's a concept that Senator Paul fully understands.

Here's why: On some basic level, Paul's speech was an inquiry into the alienation that exists between the GOP and African-Americans. His conclusion: It's all just a big misunderstanding.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

You see, Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It was Democrats who led the South's retrenchment after Reconstruction, established segregation and fought tooth and nail to protect Jim Crow. So it's Republicans, not Democrats, according to Paul, who have always been the party of civil rights.

So why aren't more African-Americans Republicans? Paul has an explanation: Having achieved electoral and civil rights African-Americans wanted economic equality, too. Republicans offered one way to get it, according to Paul, the free market, while Democrats offered another, government largesse. Thus far, Paul says, African-Americans have preferred the latter path to the former and what Republicans need to do is better explain why African-Americans should instead embrace the free market model. That's his theory anyway.

Here Paul's trying to pull off an interesting trick: using Republican performance from the pretty distant past to try and credential current policies. But in his historical retelling, Paul essentially collapses the timeline and says: look, we've always been for civil rights, and our free market prescriptions are just the latest iteration of that.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Now, it may be that this is the argument the GOP's been looking for. Perhaps, having heard it, African-Americans will vote Republican in droves in 2014. But I'm not convinced.

First, despite Paul's convictions, there's a pretty obvious reason why African Americans vote for more Democratic candidates than Republicans: They prefer Democratic policies. That's how most voters decide who to vote for – they review the candidate's positions on issues important to them, and then vote for the one whose views are more in sync with their own.

Paul probably wouldn't contest that – but he'd place the blame for Republican losses on someone who you might not expect: the voter. Instead of concluding that to compete for African-American votes Republicans have to change their policies, he suggests that the problem is the failure of African-Americans to fully comprehend the policies Republicans propose. That's what he means when he says that Republicans have to find a different way to talk about them, right? The policy isn't the problem, it's your ability, (or lack thereof) to grasp it.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is the GOP's Problem in its Strategies or its Policies?]

And here, Paul finds himself on something of a slippery slope. I mean, politics isn't rocket science. And somehow every couple of years voters across the country manage to sift through the various policy papers and pronouncements of politicians up and down the ballot to make decisions about who to support. It's peculiar (at the very least) to suggest that African-Americans are somehow incapable of engaging in the required analysis to do it when it comes to Republicans.

There's something else about Paul's thesis that just doesn't add up. Yes, Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, and Democrats dominated southern politics during segregation. But really, which of these parties of the past has more in common with the iterations that exist today?

If the answers not obvious to you, there's another bit of history that can help clear it up. Starting in the 1940s and accelerating in the 1960s national Democratic attitudes about segregation moved to the left, while the attitudes of the southern conservatives who had long affiliated with the Democratic Party pushed further to the right. This created an untenable intraparty tension that couldn't last forever. And it didn't, because southern conservatives found a new, more comfortable party to call home, one that expressed values in sync with their own. It was the Republican Party. They switched to it in droves.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Can Rand Paul Fix the GOP's Immigration Problem?]

All of which means, you guessed it, the lineage of today's Republican party traces much more directly to those pro-segregation Democrats than it does to any southern Republicans who may have been around in that day.

So let's be clear: Yes, Rand Paul is a Republican but when it comes to civil rights, his version of the GOP has about as much in common with the one that helped free the slaves as Abe Lincoln has with Abe Vigoda.

Which is to say: once you get past the name, not very much at all.

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