Setting aside the fact that most people’s youthful indiscretions don’t involve celebrating the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Paul’s insistence on standing by Hunter (who, for his part, has moderated and repudiated parts of his past) is a perfect encapsulation of the fundamental problem preventing the GOP from broadening its appeal to young people and minorities: core constituencies won’t let it.
As Ruy Teixeira has argued persuasively in a series of TP Ideas posts, the Republican Party can’t survive in the long run without expanding its support among young and minority voters. One line keeping Republicans from reaching “persuadable” voters in these demographics is the party’s terrible reputation on race: Republicans’ own research among young voters found the words most associated with the GOP to be “closed-minded, racist, rigid, [and] old-fashioned.”
Theoretically, pseudo-libertarians like Paul could offer a way out of the problem. Though it seems unlikely that Republicans will tack left on the economic issues, like the social safety net and Obamacare, that turn off minority and young voters, the GOP could make a play for these voters by tacking libertarian on criminal justice issues. A Republican serious about curtailing the drug war, mandatory minimum sentencing, and police abuse of poor and immigrant Americans (to name a few examples) could make a real case that the GOP was turning around on racial issues. Libertarians have been the most consistent voices inside the conservative movement for just these sorts of changes.
The problem, though, is that the libertarians that rise to Republican prominence tend to have some pretty awful racial baggage. As MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin details, Rand, like his father Ron, came from a “states-rights” libertarian tradition brimming with neo-Confederate sympathizers. Hence Ron’s famously racist newsletters and Rand’s famous opposition to the Civil Rights Act; where they come from, these views aren’t all that uncommon.
That’s not say to say that the Pauls are racists themselves, but rather that they’re beholden to a constituency who is. Libertarianism is, right now, a very small movement very much on the political margins. The neo-Confederates continue to make up a significant portion of the libertarian movement (if not its intellectual ranks), partly due to a self-described “Outreach To The Rednecks” campaign orchestrated by leading libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard.
This creates what one libertarian writer, Reason Magazine’s Mike Riggs, calls a “paradox:” “Libertarianism is too small to afford infighting,” Riggs suggests, but “also too small to afford people like Hunter becoming representative.” The smart, well-meaning libertarians — the ones who could help the GOP and quite possibly the country — can’t kick out the neo-Confederates, which means that elected libertarian officials will always have some ties to some truly terrible folks. Libertarian power is capped by its own power base.
This serves as a stand-in for the GOP’s broader problems. On other areas where its political outreach could benefit from policy reform — marriage equality or top marginal tax rates, for instance — key in-party constituencies, ones that can’t be easily crossed without any individual politician risking his or her hide, stand in the way. As the GOP base continues to shrink, this problem will become more acute. The more concentrated the base, the more ideologically rigid it gets, and the harder it is to break out of the trap.
So how Rand Paul is dealing with his Jack Hunter problem is something of a synechdoche for the GOP’s broader reform movement. Just as libertarians cannot shake their members with Confederate sympathies, Republicans are boxed in by the Grover Norquists and Rick Santorums who dominate their base.