What Rand Paul should have said at Howard University

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Kentucky Senator Rand Paul gave an important speech last week at Howard University – a historically black institution located in our nation’s capital. The prevailing wisdom is that Paul, a Republican, did as best he could given the skepticism of the mostly African American audience. His visit had its ups and downs, and I’ll explain what those were in just a moment, but what’s clear is that Paul is in the embryonic stages of a bid for the White House in 2016.

Paul’s decision to reach out to African Americans should be applauded. Indeed, Republicans across the country should follow his lead and start bringing their message to communities where Republican principles are not widely held. The future of the GOP depends on its ability to reach out to voters who aren’t middle-aged white men living in rural America.

Other commentators have talked about his visit in its totality, but I want to focus on a specific answer he gave to a question he received from an African American student regarding student loans.

Here’s the video:

I’m not sure I completely understand Mr. Glover’s reference to “dead presidents,” but whatever his intention, he clearly views government as inherently benign and politicians who want to cut the federal budget as indifferent towards people who receive government assistance.

To a skilled politician like Paul, this should have been an easy response: Remind this young man that social conservatives believe all people have worth. Even those who are unborn and suffering from old age and dementia. No one in this world is a mere “dollar sign” with a “heartbeat.” Remind this young man about how many well-intentioned government programs actually harm people because they can disincentivize them from being self-sufficient. Remind this young man about how Vice President Biden once said government-backed student loans are causing tuition rates to increase. Remind this young man about how on-campus jobs, private scholarships and internships can help pay his tuition. Otherwise, he’ll have to make monthly student loan payments for the next thirty years. Remind this young man about the virtues of free enterprise and how capitalism enabled people like John D. Rockefeller and Bill Gates to found colleges and establish organizations that fight world hunger. And remind this young man that he doesn’t need the federal government to succeed in life. If he ever falls on hard times and truly needs help, he should look to his family, friends, community and church before he looks to the federal government.

Pete Marovich / ZUMAPRESS

Pete Marovich / ZUMAPRESS

That’s what he should have said.

Instead, he gave a stemwinder of a response that, though accurate, probably felt like a dodge to this intellectually curious and passionate young man.

As you saw, after thirty seconds or so of stumbling over his words and unnecessarily reminding Mr. Glover that “probably we’re gonna end up disagreeing,” Senator Paul spoke about the importance of balancing the federal budget. “Even though I think your education is important,” Paul said, “I’m not for borrowing from China. I’m for figurin’ out how we get it out of the 2.6 trillion that comes in every year.” Because “if we borrow it from China we’re gonna give you a student loan, you’re gonna graduate from Howard and you’re gonna have 60,000 dollars in debt and then you got no job because we’ve borrowed so much money from China that we’re ruinin’ the economy.”

Senator Paul’s argument is not factually inaccurate. He is correct in his assessment. But I don’t see how that young man walked away from that interaction inspired, enthusiastic or thinking to himself that when 2016 comes around he’s going to hand out flyers and make phone calls on Senator Paul’s behalf.

Some will argue that honesty is the best medicine and that this young man needed to hear the truth about student loans, our economy and our federal budget. I don’t disagree with that entirely. But, and I could be wrong, I can only imagine after hearing Senator Paul’s response, Mr. Glover thought to himself: “Ok, what does my education have to do with China? I can’t get a loan from the government to attend college, to improve myself as a person, to get educated and to make more money over my lifetime because of China? Remind me again why we can’t just tax the rich?”

Part of the reason the GOP lost the presidency in 2012 was because of its inability to articulate Republican principles in an attractive way. If future GOP presidential candidates think they are going to get minority voters to support them come 2016, they need to speak in a way that does that. You only get one chance to make a great first impression. Senator Paul easily could have but unfortunately did not.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

Stephen Kokx is a freelance writer and adjunct professor of political science living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has previously worked for the Archdiocese of Chicago's Office for Peace and Justice. His writing on religion, politics and Catholic social teaching has appeared in a number of outlets, including Crisis Magazine, The American Thinker and his hometown paper The Grand Rapids Press. He is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, and is a graduate of Aquinas College and Loyola University Chicago. Follow Stephen on twitter @StephenKokx

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