Lots of national politicians have issued statements about the events surrounding the shooting of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Mo. Few if any have received as much attention for their words as GOP 2016 hopeful Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Most of the Washington lawmaker responses, from President Obama on down, followed a predictable pattern. They decried violence from protesters, said the police had a right to keep order, and then criticized at least some law enforcement activities as an overreaction on the part of local officials.
While there has been some difference between generic Republican and Democratic statements, it’s been more in emphasis than overall approach. Both sides of the political aisle have been shocked by the harsh tactics of camouflage-clad police, producing “a rare and surprisingly unified response across the ideological spectrum,” writes veteran Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz.
In this context, Senator Paul stood out for the passion of his attack on what he sees as a national trend toward overly militarized police forces and, as a Republican, for explicitly raising the issue of systematized racial bias against blacks.
“The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action,” Paul wrote in an op-ed for Time magazine’s online edition.
“Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention,” Paul added.
Will this boost Paul’s political stature? Maybe. In terms of political response, the events in Ferguson could prove “a turning point for Paul," Politico writer Burgess Everett wrote Friday morning.
In many ways, his Ferguson op-ed is unsurprising: He’s long said the GOP needs to reach out to African-Americans and Hispanics to build its voter base. His attack on militarized police is of a piece with his stand against the expansion of NSA eavesdropping powers: He is against what he judges to be aspects of an intrusive, too-big federal government.
But, if nothing else, Paul’s comments made many on the left pay more attention to his positions. Former Clinton aide Paul Begala told Politico, “Senator Paul is showing some ideological spine." Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Thursday that he found Paul’s comment’s “heartening."
The more pressing question for Paul is how potential GOP primary voters might now judge him. There, the jury is still pondering. Paul’s noninterventionist foreign policy is not in the Republican mainstream, for one thing. His emphasis on expanding the party’s tent isn’t, either. Paul’s deviation from party orthodoxy is so distinctive that political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, in his rankings of contenders, rates the Kentucky lawmaker “an unlikely nominee."
Currently, Paul is close to the top of the GOP field in polls. But it’s early, the field is large, and the margins between the contenders are small, meaning that those numbers might not indicate real strength.
In the end, Paul’s response to Ferguson might be most important for the way it could change his tag in the media. As Washington Post political blogger Aaron Blake notes, it’s time to stop associating Paul with the tea party.
No current labels fit Paul, according to Mr. Blake. Paul is not as straight-line a libertarian as is his father, Ron Paul. He’s not establishment, neoconservative, moderate, or a religious conservative.
“We still don’t know what label would be better than ‘tea party,’ but it’s becoming clearer and clearer that this label doesn’t really fit. Maybe he’s just a Rand Paul Republican,” Blake concludes.