Try as it might, the Tea Party just can't shake the accusations of racism. As I wrote in an article last month, recent polling seemed to confirm many people's darkest suspicions about the movement—that it was motivated not just by antipathy toward big government but also by racial animus. When confronted with such allegations, Tea Partiers offer a standard response: any evidence of racist sentiment can be chalked up to a tiny minority, and hey, what group doesn't have a freaky fringe?
Rand Paul has just severely compromised that argument. By refusing to say whether he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act and claiming that the federal government has no business fighting discrimination in private establishments, he comes across as an avatar of 1950s thinking on race. And as Kentucky's newly crowned Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, he is anything but fringy. In fact, he's about the closest thing to a national leader that the Tea Party has.
Of course, Paul will argue that his beliefs aren't racist, but merely part of his libertarian world view—one that he faithfully adheres to no matter what the unfortunate consequences. And maybe he's right. But that's too abstract and philosophical for many people. What they'll hear is a frightening expression of troglodytic thinking on race.
As my colleague Howard Fineman notes, Paul has potentially placed the issue of racial discrimination at the heart of the midterm election campaign. This is not favorable terrain for either him or the GOP. Republicans have a serious brand problem when it comes to race, one that requires much more serious intervention than naming an African-American as party chair. The last thing they need is for one of their new celebs to be arguing that we should turn the clock back on 50 years of racial progress.