Inner-city education for GOP hopefuls

Has Sen. Rand Paul flip-flopped on the issue of voter ID requirements?

A year ago at historically black Howard University, the Kentucky Republican defended his party’s push for voter ID requirements, saying they hardly compared to the racist voting restrictions of the old Jim Crow South.

But in recent interviews, he’s changed his tone, if not his tune. He doesn’t oppose voter ID requirements, he says, but he wants his party to stop talking about them.

“Everybody’s gone completely crazy on this voter ID thing,” he told New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters. “I think it’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it’s offending people.”

Mainly black people, that is, among other minorities and advocates for low-income voters who tend to be burdened most by such laws.

Paul’s people say his views have not changed but, in my view, his sensitivity to how much minority voters hate voter ID laws and other issues has vastly improved.

Sen. Paul has done a smart thing recently: He embarked on a listening tour. He has visited black, Hispanic and low-income communities across the nation. He has met with clergy and other community leaders to learn about real problems and problem solvers beyond his usual libertarian theories.

And he’s not alone among presidential hopefuls on such a cross-cultural quest. I recently sat down with House Budget chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to discuss his own listening tour to more than a dozen cities and communities since his 2012 GOP vice presidential run.

As a self-described policy wonk and former aide to Rep. Jack Kemp, a famously popular white conservative in minority communities, Ryan candidly described a wish to carry on in Kemp’s tradition.

“What I’m learning,” he told me, “is that what you’re saying and what people are hearing are not always the same thing.”

He was referring to his infamous sound bite on a radio show that triggered charges that Ryan was blowing a racial dog whistle to far-right whites: “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular,” he said, “of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work….”

Coming from a leading white Republican, his “inner city” reference could be heard as a clumsy critique of black culture.

“I think of everybody – Hispanics, Asians, whites. That’s the inner city I know,” he told me. Ryan offered examples of programs in his home state and elsewhere that try to “reconnect” people from various income and ethnic groups together through religious and other civic organizations to fight poverty with social, educational and economic opportunities.

“The point I was trying to make,” he said, “is that we need to reintegrate people to make a difference.”

Fair enough. One can argue as to whether Ryan’s or Paul’s budgetary and legislative ideas will help that reconnection or make it worse. Same with voter ID laws. But disagreements are where honest debates should begin, not end.

Ryan’s and Paul’s media stumbles illustrate how hard it is for any productive policy debate to survive in today’s racially and emotionally charged political atmosphere. Issues on which we disagree should not be allowed to block progress in those areas on which we agree.

Ryan and Paul are trying to meet that challenge. The big question is how far their conservative base will let them do it.