All things considered, Senator Paul’s appearance at Howard University today went pretty well. He delivered a decent speech and the questions from the audience were a lot less combative than I was expecting. There was a huge media presence including CNN’s Jake Tapper, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, and Reason editor Nick Gillespie.

The political utility of it is this: Whenever Republicans charge their opponents with trying to paint them as racists because of their stance on issues such as voter ID, Democrats typically respond with something like, “no, we’re not saying you’re racists, it’s just that you’ve done nothing to court black voters. You just don’t seem to care.” Today Paul made himself a notable exception to that argument.

Here are some of the more important things that happened:

Mandatory minimums – The only big applause Paul received was for mentioning a new bill to repeal federal mandatory minimum sentencing. It was introduced in late March, but in some ways today was its big debut.

Civil Rights Act controversy — In Paul’s speech he said, “I have never wavered in my support for civil rights or the civil rights act.” When a Howard professor asked the senator about his early criticisms of it, he said ”I’ve never been against the Civil Rights Act. Ever.” and “I don’t question the Civil Rights Act. I question the ramifications beyond race.” Either one of those answers would have been fine in the absence of his 2010 comments, and he’s already being criticized for not being more forthright.

GOP, party of civil rights? — A common trope whenever Republicans make a pitch to minority voters is to review the GOP’s 19th- and early 20th-century history of advancing civil rights. The first chunk of Paul’s speech was devoted to this kind of expository history. The problem is that runs the risk of being preachy and didactic; as if Howard students need to be taught the history of segregation, and as if there weren’t specific reasons blacks stopped voting for Republicans. Things got especially awkward when the audience had to remind him of Senator Edward Brooke’s name, and when they responded with a chorus of “yes!” when he asked if anyone was aware the NAACP was founded by Republicans. Liberals on Twitter have been giving the senator a lot of flak for “whitesplaining,” or “randsplaining,” though they were going to do that no matter what he said. Since the aim of the speech was more to open a dialogue I give him a pass on this one, but he was much better when he stuck to policy instead of history.

Q&A — “Which Republican party do you belong to? The party of Lincoln? Or the party of Nixon and Reagan?” (Paul rejected the idea that they were separate creatures.) Another asked about how hemp legalization would help Kentucky’s poor, and there were predictable ones about independence and budgetary autonomy for DC. And there was this:

And this:

What was missing? — Towards the end of the speech I had this interview with MBD in mind:

Most conservatives like to think that they have principles that are color-blind: the eternal verities and such. I think this is a kind of self-flattery that excuses historical ignorance on our part. Enslavement stripped Africans of their ethnicities, their languages, and their religion. That means more than any one other group in this country African-Americans are a people created by the history of our nation and its politics: commerce, slavery, the Civil War, emancipation, the civil rights movement. It is a naïveté bordering on psychosis to suggest that black politics should conform to some imagined color-blind set of principles. Just junk that and start reaching out into the black community. I sense a real hunger on their part for political competition for their vote and support.

There is an absolutely electrifying intellectual tradition of black self-sufficiency and independence that is a good fit within a big-tent conservatism. And it is larger than Booker T. Washington. Zora Neal Hurston endorsed Robert Taft in the 1950s. Malcolm X was in many ways both more radical than King and more conservative too. This tradition is not at all color-blind, but it is localist, communitarian, religious (Muslim and Christian), and entrepreneurial. I also think conservatives should start political discussions on our drug war, on prison reform, and on policing that can and should help us re-connect with African Americans.

Senator Paul mostly avoided the tone-deafness of the sort Dougherty describes in the first paragraph, and he absolutely deserves credit for taking up some of those criminal justice reforms. But if Paul had framed his argument in terms of the consonance between conservative values and the black intellectual tradition instead of the GOP’s civil rights history, which is largely irrelevant today, I have a feeling he might have received a less tepid response. Of course it’s not his tradition to interpret, but he could have made the point gracefully.