How the Establishment Press Got Rand Paul Wrong

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Most journalists failed to anticipate his role in the Senate, focusing instead on a distracting controversy about the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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Reuters

When Rand Paul emerged on the national scene in 2010, staffers at places like The Cato Institute and Reason backed him more enthusiastically than any other U.S. Senate candidate. Like all Tea Party-affiliated pols, Paul favored smaller government, tax cuts, and free-market reforms. Unlike Marco Rubio or Christine O'Donnell, the Kentucky Republican was expected by right-leaning libertarians to oppose the bipartisan excesses of the post-9/11 era. As Radley Balko argued that spring, Paul would be better on civil liberties than President Obama and most Senate Democrats. Few non-libertarians believed him, as evidenced by the skeptical replies of progressive writers Adam Serwer* and Jamelle Bouie, savvy civil libertarians in their own right.

Three years later, it is beyond dispute: Paul is a leading opponent of civil-liberties abrogations, executive-power excesses, and militarism. Safe to say, after last week's filibuster, that his stands on those issues are the most visible and consequential that he has taken in the Senate. Even prior to that 13-hour spectacle, Paul mounted high-profile, sometimes lonely efforts to reform the Patriot Act; formally end the president's authorization to wage war in Iraq; reform drug laws; prevent indefinite detention; extend Fourth Amendment protections to electronic communications; require warrants for drone surveillance; reform overzealous TSA screening procedures; and stop an anti-piracy bill that would have onerously infringed on free expression online.

He's also opposed calls to wage war in Libya, Syria, and Iran.       

In light of this record, the establishment press ought to reflect upon the fact that its 2010 coverage utterly failed to anticipate the most important consequences of electing Paul to the Senate. Go back, as I just did, and read every story The New York Times published about him. Its coverage was representative: The paper paid little attention to his anti-war, pro-civil liberties, pro-checks-and-balances proclivities, though those issues were certain to loom large between 2010 and 2016; it paid some attention to the political import of a possible victory by a Tea Party Republican; and it focused intensely on Paul's position on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legislation that passed when he was two years old and certainly won't be revisited in the foreseeable future. (Another landmark law from that era, the Voting Rights Act, does face a serious challenge in the Supreme Court right now.)

Revisiting this coverage is important because it helps to clarify the flaws in the way that many journalists cover libertarianism generally -- even if you think, as I do, that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was extremely important legislation that ought to be celebrated by all Americans for the good it did; and that, if better executed, covering Paul's position on the subject would have been legitimate. Unfortunately, the actual coverage unfolded in a way that left the audience ill-informed. 

The particulars won't surprise anyone familiar with the template the political press uses to cover libertarians. As Chris Beam wrote in 2010, "For all the talk about casting off government shackles, libertarianism is still considered the crazy uncle of American politics: loud and cocky and occasionally profound but always a bit unhinged." He nailed the perception among journalists.

One consequence is something I call reductio ad libertarium.  

On a given issue, a journalist confronted with the libertarian position, like legalizing drugs, objects by pointing out the most extreme possible consequence: "So I could go buy heroin at the store?" Fair enough, except that there are no analogous challenges to the establishment positions. A candidate whose stance is that drugs must remain illegal is never asked, "So you're okay with imprisoning millions of people, empowering violent street gangs, destabilizing multiple foreign countries, militarizing municipal police forces, and still having ubiquitous drug use?"

Thanks to status quo bias, libertarians are labeled "crazy" and "kooky," even as the establishment makes historic blunders for which they are never pilloried and that many libertarians opposed.

(Take the Iraq War.)

It's a bogus approach.

When Paul sat down in April 2010 with the Louisville Courier-Journal editorial board during his Senate primary, an interviewer, knowing his libertarian affinity for property rights, reached for the most extreme possible consequence of that position. "Would you have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964?" he asked. It's actually a legitimate question. As Ross Douthat would later write, "No ideology survives the collision with real-world politics perfectly intact. General principles have to bend to accommodate the complexities of history, and justice is sometimes better served by compromise than by zealous intellectual consistency." Regardless of a candidate's ideology, it's appropriate to ask probing questions like that precisely to test his or her limits.

"I like the Civil Rights Act in the sense that it ended discrimination in all public domains," Paul replied. "I'm all in favor of that."

Said his questioner, "But?"

Paul chuckled.

"You had to ask for the 'but.' I don't like the idea of telling private business owners -- I abhor racism, I think it's a bad business idea to ever exclude anybody from your restaurant, but at the same time I do believe in private ownership, but I think there should be absolutely no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that's mostly what the Civil Rights Act was about."

The newspaper cited that exchange in a subsequent editorial that pointedly endorsed neither man in the GOP primary. "The trouble with Dr. Paul is that despite his independent thinking, much of what he stands for is repulsive to people in the mainstream," the editorial stated. "For instance, he holds an unacceptable view of civil rights, saying that while the federal government can enforce integration of government jobs and facilities, private business people should be able to decide whether they want to serve black people, or gays, or any other minority group."

Were voters well-informed by that editorial?

I'd argue, after three years of Senator Paul, that his record on civil rights is much better than average.

I'd argue, after three years of Senator Paul, that his record on civil rights is much better than average, and far better than what his Republican opponent in that primary would've managed. The Bill of Rights has no more consistent defender in the Senate than Paul. And he has pointed critiques of the War on Drugs and the War on Terrorism, the two federal policies that do more harm to minorities than any others. There was nothing wrong with the Courier-Journal criticizing Paul's answer on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as I have done. But to treat it as the only or even the most relevant position that Paul had taken on the subject of civil rights was myopic.

Skip ahead to the morning after Paul's primary victory, when he appeared on NPR for an interview with Robert Siegel. That occasion was very different from a leisurely editorial board interview. There would be time to ask Paul just six questions. Three were about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Again, testing a candidate's ideology or principles by honing in on the most difficult cases is legitimate; but "mainstream" Republicans and Democrats are seldom questioned in that manner, and are almost never forced to focus on issues so removed from what they'll face in office. With the nation at war, an ongoing fiscal crisis, debate still raging over Obamacare, the Republican Party dividing into factions, and conservatives beating the drum for war with Iran, was the NPR audience optimally informed about the choices before them by an interview that focused fully half of its questions on whether Paul would've supported everything in the Civil Rights Act or just the majority of its provisions? In hindsight, was that a good use of the time?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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