Anyone following current events knows by now that Senate candidate Rand Paul got himself in trouble by saying something politically incorrect.
However, even news junkies may have only a hazy sense of the mistake Paul's supposed to have made, because neither the controversial interviews nor the resulting hullabaloo has done much to clarify the issues.
I'll try here.
Paul suggested more than once that he might have tried to amend out one part of the Civil Rights Act, if he'd been in Congress in 1964.
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Unlike the rest of the Act, which targeted government-sponsored discrimination, Section 201 of Title II forbids discrimination by privately owned businesses such as hotels, food providers or entertainment facilities.
Strictly speaking, that section did not rule out all forms of racial discrimination.
First, the ban did not apply to private establishments, only those "open to the public." Second, the ban only applied to businesses participating in interstate commerce, which Congress has constitutional authority to regulate.
The bulk of Paul's comments were directed not at the ban but at the legal interpretations used to circumvent these limitations.
A straightforward application of the law would have missed the roadside inns, local theaters and country stores emblematic of Jim Crow segregation.
Many small businesses buy from local suppliers and primarily advertise and sell to local customers. Federal courts therefore defined interstate commerce broadly enough that even tiny establishments would fall under congressional control.
A lunch counter became part of interstate commerce because it might get its pickles from Iowa or serve an occasional traveler from Georgia. This evolution in legal thinking has provided a key justification for expanding the national government's power.
For example, a court ruling dating back to the New Deal said that Congress could prevent a farmer from growing wheat for his own use because his action would indirectly influence grain prices.
In recent times, Congress has used similar logic to justify jumping into numerous areas of law enforcement previously handled by the states.
The blurry distinction between "public" and "private" also has caused headaches. The feds obviously had no intention of letting businesses dodge the law by changing into private clubs, so the definition of a public activity had to be fairly broad.
But in the process, it became confusing and subject to manipulation (as illustrated by the recent controversy over whether the Boy Scouts were a public group that could be forced to accept openly gay scoutmasters).
With hindsight, a reasonable person can embrace civil rights but dislike how the Civil Rights Act was applied.
Frankly, it's embarrassing that our nation needed to go through such contortions before we could choke racial justice out of the system.
But that's the way government was doing business in 1964, and Jim Crow segregation was such a moral stain on our country that few people really cared how the lawyers talked themselves into fixing things.
Where does that leave Rand Paul? Contrary to his less reasonable critics, there's no evidence Paul is a closet racist. Saying Paul wants to go back to segregated lunch counters because he has qualms with the way we desegregated them 40 years ago is as dumb as saying "I'm against eating because I dislike tonight's dinner."
People can agree on a goal while disagreeing on the means to get there.
The worst one can say is that, by failing to anticipate this fuss, Paul raised doubts about his ability to represent a chunk of Kentucky. He squandered an opportunity to invite minority voters to the Tea Party movement.
Other critics argue that, by questioning the doctrines used to grow our national government, Paul has shown he's too far from the mainstream. Perhaps. His views certainly mark him as a principled conservative — and ought to cost him support from voters comfortable with the scope of federal power.
But they only mark him as an extremist if one also considers several Supreme Court justices to be part of the fringe. He's engaging in exactly the sort of critical thinking that takes place in law reviews and that I try to encourage in college students.
It's only wacky to folks who cannot tolerate disagreement.
Paul's real failure was one of judgment. People around the country were just starting to evaluate him and, indirectly, us. It wasn't the time to treat a national TV appearance like a legal seminar.
He should know better than trying to communicate complex views on controversial issues in the middle of a hostile interview.
One mistake should not disqualify a citizen politician. But as voters, we now must watch Rand Paul to see whether this event was an isolated case of opening-day jitters or a sign that he's really not up to the role of representing us to the world.