Point/Counterpoint: Rand Paul’s Cigarette Tax Gaffe Shows He Has a Tough Road Ahead

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Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky), who until Jeb Bush’s recent announcement led the pack of 2016 Republican presidential contenders, is known for being the most outspoken Republican on racial issues. Recently, he put a big dent in that reputation by attempting to make the connection between the killing of Eric Garner by an overzealous police officer and New York’s high cigarette excise tax.

Until this most recent gaffe, Paul had been remarkably successful at turning an initial negative for him – race issues – into a positive. Despite some early missteps, like a poorly received speech at Howard University, Paul’s early break with many of his peers on Ferguson and police militarization earned him respect in unlikely corners. For much of the summer and fall, Paul’s advocacy on police brutality and willingness to call out racism as a serious problem put him ahead of Hilary Clinton on the issue. At the same time, his position with the Republican base has slipped, in part due to the resurgence of issues like military conflict and racial tensions that highlight between Paul and the rank-and-file.

Paul’s argument – that without the existence of the black market created by high cigarette taxes, Eric Garner would be alive – is true. It also misses the point entirely. I’m sympathetic to the deeper implications of Paul’s point, which is that the poor and disadvantaged are the victims of the various black markets enabled by government policy and policed in a discriminatory manner. But the deployment of his argument in the wake of the grand jury decision, which exposed the depth of racism in the entire system, was tone-deaf.

The gaffe hurts Paul with African American voters in particular. First, it reasserts the early caricature of Paul as a closet racist with retrograde views on civil rights and unsavory associates. This is unfair to Sen. Paul, who has written eloquently about Ferguson and was the first 2016 contender of either party to visit the town. But the attempt to tie Eric Garner’s death to high cigarette taxes makes it feel as if Paul is using “black” issues to support his agenda, rather than calling attention to issues that black voters care about. The real (and often justified) fear of white appropriation, recently the cause of much side-eye against white protestors, extends to presidential candidates as well.

Furthermore, the gaffe undermines Paul’s reputation as a fearless truth-teller willing to buck his party. It’s hard to be a Republican and talk about racism in the criminal justice system or the folly of American interventionism. It’s easy to assail politicians and high taxes. Paul’s attempt to appeal to the base looks venal when compared to his attempts to lead the base on the same issue months before. It’s also no secret that Kentucky is the second-largest tobacco producer in the United States.

But perhaps most damning is what the gaffe says about Paul’s sincerity. It’s hard to believe that Paul would have tried to tie Garner’s death to high taxes if just one black person, or even a particularly race-conscious white person, had been in the room when the decision was made.

If nothing else, Sen. Paul’s recent misstep illustrates the difficulty he will have in attracting new, progressive voters while holding onto his base in the Republican Party. If he fails to build this odd alliance, he can kiss his 2016 hopes goodbye.