There's always a market, particularly in the media, for the politician who can surprise by running counter to the stereotypes of his or her party. As the two parties become more ideologically unified, that figure becomes even more compelling. The trick is to do it without making your party's loyal supporters angry at you. Which brings us to Rand Paul, who has a plan to become 2016's "Different kind of Republican," the label that was placed on George W. Bush back in 2000:
Sen. Rand Paul tells POLITICO that the Republican presidential candidate in 2016 could capture one-third or more of the African-American vote by pushing criminal-justice reform, school choice and economic empowerment.
"If Republicans have a clue and do this and go out and ask every African-American for their vote, I think we can transform an election in one cycle," the Kentucky Republican said in a phone interview Thursday as he was driven through New Hampshire in a rental car.
Paul — on the cover of the new issue of Time as "The Most Interesting Man in Politics" — met with black leaders in Ferguson, Missouri, last week; opened a "GOP engagement office" in an African-American area of Louisville in June; and spoke the next month to a National Urban League convention in Cincinnati.
"That doesn't mean that we get to a majority of African-American votes in one cycle," Paul continued, speaking between campaign stops in Plymouth and Salem. "But I think there is fully a third of the African-American vote that is open to much of the message, because much of what the Democrats has offered hasn't worked."
Paul is probably taking inspiration from Bush's experience with Latino voters. Bush made a very visible effort to reach out to them, not because he thought he could actually win the Latino vote, but because he thought he could make some inroads, and even more importantly, because it would be a signal to moderate voters that he wasn't like all those other mean Republicans who had contempt for poor people, people of color, and anyone who wasn't firmly in the GOP's camp. That's what "compassionate conservatism" was about—not a set of policies but an attempt to be more welcoming, aimed ostensibly at minorities but actually at moderate whites.
And it did make a difference among Hispanics—according to exit polls Bush got 35 percent of the Latino vote in 2000 and 44 percent in 2004. Compare that to the 31 percent John McCain got in 2008 and the 27 percent Mitt Romney got in 2012.
Paul seems to understand that "reaching out" to a group your party has in the past either ignored or been openly antagonistic toward has two components. You have to pay attention to them, going to events where they're gathering and making sure you listen to what they have to say. And you also have to offer them something in the policy realm, to show that it isn't just about symbolism. That's what Republicans aren't doing now when it comes to Latinos—they say they want their votes, but if anything they've moved to the right on immigration reform.
Paul's positions on the drug war and mass incarceration allow him to say to African Americans that he has something substantive to offer them. But there's no way he (or any other Republican) could get a third of their votes in a presidential campaign.
That's partly because Paul is only one person, and no matter how much he reaches out, other people in his party are going to keep doing things like air this latter-day Willie Horton ad. Then there's the comprehensive Republican project to restrict voting rights, which African Americans rightly interpret as an effort to keep them from voting. Then there's the fact that for the last six years, Barack Obama has been subject to an endless torrent of racist invective, not only from your uncle at Thanksgiving but from people with nationally syndicated radio shows. On his listening tour, Paul might ask a few black people how they feel about the fact that America's first black president had to show his birth certificate to prove he's a real American. Their answers would probably be instructive.
The final reason that Republicans will struggle to win the votes of all but a tiny number of blacks is that on an individual, organizational, and institutional level, the African-American community is woven deeply into the Democratic party. That interdependence has been built over the last 50 years, and undoing it even partially would take a long time even if the Republican party was completely committed to trying, which it won't be.
I have trouble believing that Rand Paul actually thinks he can get a third of the African-American vote. And maybe this is all about appealing to white moderates. Even so, he deserves some credit for making the effort. Given the fact that we're talking about a guy who first got national attention for his opposition to the public accommodation provisions of the Civil Rights Act, it's pretty remarkable.