Back when he was running for president, John Kerry was labeled a “flip-flopper” for changing his mind on certain issues, thereby creating a new political species of equivocator. Fast forward to 2014 and Rand Paul, the junior senator for Kentucky, is creating a sub-species of flip-flopper giving political biologists reason to rejoice. This week, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow created a relatively small firestorm over Paul’s new views on the civil rights act. Paul has responded by calling all of MSNBC “partisan hacks and cranks” and saying that he will not appear on the network again until they have 24-hours of reporting their apologies. Rather ironically, he said this to MSNBC’s “The Cycle” host Ari Melber, but nevertheless his message was very clear: Rand Paul does not evolve.
This story started four years ago when the young Rand Paul appeared on Maddow’s show in a good-humored sparring match which included discussion of his views on the Civil Rights Act. At the time, he stated that he supported most of the civil rights act, but as a libertarian and a believer in private property he took issue with the part of the act that desegregated privately owned businesses. He did not say that he did not support the civil rights act, only that he would not have supported that part of the act and would have sought to amend that portion in some acceptable way. This is an important distinction and it is one that the Kentucky senator is using now in his own defence.
On “The Cycle,” Rand Paul was vehement in arguing that he had never said he was against the civil rights act. “Have I ever had a philosophical discussion about all aspects of it? Yeah, and I learned my lesson,” he told Ari Melber on the subject. His lesson specifically was not complimentary to Melber’s network. “To come on MSNBC and have a philosophical discussion, the liberals will come out of the woodwork and go crazy and say you’re against the Civil Rights Act, and you’re some terrible racist.” Paul’s defense, then, is that he tried to engage in a civil discussion about his beliefs and why he holds them and that he was summarily insulted and misrepresented by Maddow and others’ analysis of his views. More to the point, MSNBC chose to play partisan politics and he was just trying to be above all that.
It is understandable that a man who has campaigned consistently and eagerly to appeal to African American voters would be upset about critiques of his stance on the seminal Civil Rights Act, a measure to which many minorities and the black community in particular owe a lot. Rand Paul wants to be the one Republican that the African American community supports. Just on July 25, he made a speech at the National Urban League Conference in which he quoted Malcolm X and talked about his latest effort to give voting rights back to some nonviolent felons. This is important because a vast majority of inmates are African American and Paul is hoping that it will earn him a measure of goodwill from that community. Somewhat awkwardly, however, the crowd at his speech was sparse, not even filling all the seats available, and had to be coaxed into sitting in the front rows to listen to the speech. It was, as many stand-up comedians have said, a tough crowd.
If the matter were as simple as Rand Paul is representing it, then this would be a much different story. It would be about political “hacks and cranks” and the Kentucky politician would have every reason to “take great offense at people who want to portray [him] as something [he’s] not.” No one wants to go back to the days of John Kerry being “for it before he was against it” and the endless double-speak he gave reporters who tried to pin him down on what he stood for. The last thing Paul wants is to be equated with the consummate flip-flopper himself who, it should be noted, did not win that presidential election. It is important that Rand Paul be seen as consistent and trustworthy and it is for this reason that he maintains he is being attacked and thoroughly maligned by liberal partisans.
Rand Paul does not evolve on his beliefs, it seems, but through all this brouhaha he has evolved into a different kind of flip-flopper: the kind that claims it never flipped at all. Contrary to Paul’s protestations, it is quite clear and on the public record that he has changed his views on the Civil Rights Act. He has never stated he did not support it and no one is claiming that. Instead, Maddow, the primary journalistic force in this situation, has pointed out that he now claims he never had a qualm with it, which is simply not the case. Four years ago on her very show, he talked about his problem with one specific title of the act regarding private business. The MSNBC host played that clip on her show, then showed another clip of him four years later saying, “I never said that,” when asked about it by a different reporter. In fact, in the very speech he gave to the National Urban League, he stated that he “unequivocally” supported the Civil Rights Act in its entirety.
Rachel Maddow, who started this storm-in-a-bottle, did a good follow-up analysis of the entire situation. She made the point that no one was calling Rand Paul a racist or saying that he had flip-flopped. This was not a matter of partisanship, but a matter of the public record. Contradicting oneself is much harder now that video clips are as ubiquitous as the people with the phones taking the videos. This is a lesson that every presidential hopeful like Paul will have to learn if they are to avoid Mitt Romney’s debacle from 2012.
Maddow went a step further, however, when she diagnosed Rand Paul with an ailment called “petulance.” She pointed out that temperament is an important part of a presidential candidate’s repertoire. Having a president who flies into a rage at the slightest sign of push-back and challenges people to duels is not a good thing for a country. Leadership is more than just having good ideas. It is also having the good sense to stay calm and collected in the face of adversity. Rand Paul, as Maddow points out, has not done that. She played clips of him saying he wished dueling was legal so he could react physically to his critics. She played the video of him getting worked up on “The Cycle” and with her analysis to back it up, Rand Paul comes out looking like the “petulant liar” she says he is, which is not a good thing to have said about oneself whether it is true or not.
During the Senate’s summer break, Rand Paul will be travelling all over Iowa as he tests out his chances for a run at the presidency. Iowa as most people know is the foremost primary state in the nation and in many cases, it is the predictor for how the ultimate election will turn out. As a strategy, going to Iowa is a good idea if Paul is really going to throw his hat into the ring as a Republican possibility. In his most recent tests of leadership, however, Paul has been found rather lacking. He has shown a problem of temper which may factor in the presidential race. But more importantly, he has made it possible for people to brand him a “liar” and has given them video proof to back up their claims. The 2016 election season has not officially begun and already he has a serious image problem to deal with, which is not where he wants to be right when he is about to visit Iowa.
Way back when, John Kerry was a flip-flopper. Caught in an awkward position, he tried to hold two different positions at one time and earned a well-deserved label as untrustworthy and wishy-washy. Neither of those were good things for a presidential candidate to be. Rand Paul is not a flip-flopper, but he has become something else in that same species of political animal. No one seems to have thought up a catchy name for it yet, but the evolution of a species deserves something memorable. Whatever clever people come up with, though, Rand Paul will probably continue to claim that he does not evolve on issues or in the political species he now shares with the ill-fated Kerry.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury