By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Rand Paul, the GOP Senate candidate in Kentucky, "unequivocally" stated today that he would not try to overturn the Civil Rights Act if he is elected to the U.S. Senate. It is, he said, "settled" law. In terms of profiles in courage, that's right up there with George W. Bush condemning Dred Scott during one of his 2004 debates against John Kerry.
As I wrote in my column today, Paul typifies a very real potential problem for the GOP this fall. Political candidates typically tack toward their party's base in primaries and then steer back toward the center (where the swing voters live) in contested general elections. But if the Tea Party crowd succeeds in nominating a string of ideologically rigid candidates, the party could find itself in a perpetual primary mode, always catering to its base. It would match core voters unwilling to tolerate compromise or moderation (often necessary for winning elections, always necessary for successful governing) with candidates uninterested in trying those things.
The problem is the absolute certitude of the true believer.
In the true believer's view, everything comes down to the simple principle in which one has invested one's faith. Everything is viewed through that prism. The Civil Rights Act isn't, then, about racism or segregation but simply an abrogation of private property rights and the free market (though as my friend Robert George argues, segregation and Jim Crow were themselves offenses against not only our national conscience but against the free market as well).
There is legitimately a balance that must be struck between a party staying true to its principles and not becoming so ideologically rigid as to calcify and become a permanent minority (click here for a pair of very good pieces laying out each side in this argument, one from the head of the conservative Club for Growth and the other from head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council). But Paul and the Tea Party crowd threaten to leave the GOP unbalanced. They are so convinced of their own civic righteousness that they are blinded to the fact that they have minority views.
They see no need to moderate (or, in office, compromise) because they believe themselves to be fundamentally in the middle of the main stream of political thought. And the true believer's predilection toward philosophy makes them easily drawn into grand philosophical debates, which The Fix points out, is a losing proposition in high stakes politics. Theoretical discussions lend themselves to taking beliefs to their logical conclusions. And true believerism keeps candidates like Rand from having the good sense to not go there.
And this isn't just gotcha-ism. As Ezra Klein notes:
the fact that Paul's view on the Civil Rights Act is so dominated by his libertarian ideology that he cannot even admit race and segregation into the calculus is exactly why this is relevant to Paul's candidacy, why it's an issue and why it's among the best evidence we have in understanding how he'll vote on legislation that comes before him.
Democrats have pounced on this in an effort to define Paul as a radical. "We're learning that Rand Paul has this narrow and rigid philosophy when it comes to government interacting with business in any sort of way," says Jack Conway, Pauls' Democratic opponent. Paul's first couple of days as certified GOP nominee--starting with having his victory rally at an exclusive country club--have been like manna from heaven for Conway, literally. According to Conway, online fundraising has ticked up as the media has turned the spotlight on Paul's nuttiness. (And as I wrote that a fundraising email came in from the Conway campaign asking for a $5 donation to battle Paul's--wait for it--"narrow and rigid" ideology.)
So Paul's radical image does double duty, not simply isolating swing voters, but raising funds for Conway. The portrait of the young doctor as wild eyed and dangerous could well stick. That's why the GOP establishment was so anxious to keep Paul from winning the primary.