Rand Paul and Civil Rights: The End of the Tea Party?

Here's one thing that can, plainly, be said about the controversy over Rand Paul and the Civil Rights Act: this is exactly what Democrats hoped would happen.

The Democratic campaign and message apparatus has been banking, for months, on the rightward tilt of the Tea Party to damage the Republican Party in November's midterm elections. They put out a strategy memo to this effect in January.

The idea is, basically: Tea Partiers are crazy, right-wing extremists. If the Republican Party elects them to run in November, the Republican Party will lose. Democrats have been saying this for months.

Paul's statements about the Civil Rights Act, brought up last night by Rachel Maddow and discussed at length, in an interview, have dominated the news cycle today. It has not looked good for Paul, or for the Tea Party.

Just to be clear what we're talking about, Paul does not oppose the 1964 Civil Rights Act on the whole. He disagrees with the provision that required businesses to serve people equally. He says this is a matter of speech, and that to support such limitations on private business--as opposed to statutory desegregation of public institutions like schools, which Paul supports--one has to accept that what the government has done is tell a private business owner how to run his private business. He opposes that. On the question of whether he would have voted for it, Paul seems to indicate that, supporting 9/10 of its statutes, he probably would have, but he leaves the question open, and says that, had be been in the Senate at the time, there would have been "some discussion" about the provision that desegregated private businesses. When Maddow asked Paul, point-blank, whether lunch counters in the South should have been allowed to keep serving whites only, Paul would not answer the question in a "yes" or "no," as Maddow implored him to. Paul has warned repeatedly that this is an abstract debate that will be oversimplified and used against him by political opponents. So far, the latter is certainly true.

Ta-Nehisi, earlier today, chided Paul for his proud ignorance and for not simply settling down to make the case for private-sector discrimination. There is an argument there, and there are some valid points in its favor. Paul makes some of them.

Here's the interview segment:

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Whether this proves that Democrats were right all along, and that Tea Partiers are not viable candidates for office at all, remains to be seen. Rand Paul is a prized candidate of the Tea Party movement; this is an early problem for him, which has sprung up less than a day after he won his party's nomination. Before that, he and the movement were both riding high.

A Tea Party organizer I talked to today said the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. He had no problem with anything Paul had said.

One thing's for certain, in all this: other Tea Party-backed candidates will be asked, by Democratic campaigns and by debate moderators, what they think of desegregating private businesses. Part of the Democratic plan has been to ask Tea Party-backed candidates about controversial views and get them on the record. Paul's stance has become a big enough story, however, that the media will probably do this on its own.

Depending on what Tea Partiers say about Paul's statements, and how the public debate over Paul plays out, this moment has a chance to further alienate the movement as a whole from the mainstream. That said, it's not the end of the movement, as Democrats would very much like it to be. If Richard Blumenthal can overcome questions about his portrayal of Vietnam service, surely Paul and the Tea Partiers can get over this.

As Ta-Nehisi points out, there are better ways to argue Paul's stance. There are probably more caveats to offer, too. Other Tea Party candidates--Florida's Marco Rubio, Nevada's Sharron Angle, and Utah's Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater, for instance--ought to be working out their stances on the Civil Rights Act as we speak. Because the questions are coming, and some talking points are needed.