Facing increased scrutiny of how his libertarian views apply to current laws and potential legislation, Kentucky Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul on Friday clarified earlier remarks about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, adding that the remarks were part of "a philosophic debate about a moot point."
In an interview at his Bowling Green, Kentucky opthamology practice with WHAS11's Joe Arnold, Paul also backed off his repeated calls to abolish the U.S. Department of Education, expressed support for school choice and vouchers, and tried to renew the focus of the Senate race on the central tenet of his campaign, cutting spending as the U.S. debt spirals.
"These are big problems," Paul said, "We can get sidetracked into emotional issues that have nothing to do with fixing the big problem."
In the wake of the controversy that followed Paul's Wednesday night appearance on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, and subsequent interviews with other national networks, the Paul campaign has suspended interviews with national reporters, including canceling a planned appearance on NBC's Meet the Press. Referring to a live interview on ABC's Good Morning America on Friday morning, Paul said he "held my own against (George) Stephanapolous."
Paul said one lesson learned from the MSNBC experience is "I need to be very careful about going on certain networks that seem to have a bias. Because it really wasn't the interview so much that was unfair. The interview I think was very fair. But then they went on a whole day repeating something over and over again. It makes me less inclined to go on a network."
Paul's beef is with repeated claims by MSNBC personalities, claims that Paul describes as "lies" perpetuated by the Democratic National Committee, that Paul wanted to repeal the Civil Rights Act. The claim has also been advanced by Democratic Senate opponent Jack Conway. Hardball host Chris Matthews corrected the error on Thursday.
The national attention has raised the question of the how Paul's views of limited government would be applied, a question that GOP rival Trey Grayson attempted to make a campaign issue during the Republican primary.
"To me, I look at government as not a utopian ideal that we can get to," Paul said in the interview with Arnold, "but I can have a philosophic discussion with you over utopian ideals. But when I look at it, I say, 'How do we fix Medicare, how do we fix social security so another generation gets it?' We've all paid into it. Its not a discussion over whether we're having it or not having it, let's try to fix it."
The same national cable shows Paul used to launch and grow his Senate bid, this week stoked controversy when Paul challenged the constitutionality of a Civil Rights Act requirement of private businesses not to discriminate based on race.
"It's a settled question," Paul said on Friday, "Its been settled since 1964 and I do not plan on repealing, voting against... I would have voted in totality for the Civil Rights Act because I think we had a real problem in the South that wasn't being corrected."
Asked why he did not speak that forthrightly and clearly on his position on MSNBC, Wednesday, Paul said the on-air debate was a contrived ambush based on Democratic talking points.
"I think sometimes we are imperfect people and we don't always say what we mean," Paul acknowledged, "We don't always explain what we mean very well. But I also was never asked the question (of whether he would have voted yes or no on the Civil Rights Act), so I was trying to answer the question, but I think getting too much into a philosophic debate about a moot point."
Given the principled and incalcitrant nature of Paul's positions, he was asked whether it was likely that the Senate campaign will see much more of this type of scrutiny, debate and controversy.
"Not necessarily," Paul replied, "We were stuck in the middle of a big national news cycle and may still be in it. Who knows? But I think that there are now clear answers where there weren't clear answers, and I would think that that settles the question."
Does he take some responsibility for the answers not being answered?
"Yeah, I think so," Paul continued, "But the other thing that's interesting is our Senate campaign has become more the level of attention of a presidential campaign gets and so you can see how people sort of like doggedly grab an issue and won't let go, and I think that kind of stuff can happen sometimes when you get into an issue."
Paul said, unlike longtime politicians who are often coached and accompanied by aides and to whom access is restricted, he is "more frank and open and I think some people want that in government. They want a new type of person to go to government that isn't one of these people protecting layer on layer and who will give a 20 minute interview and never say anything."
Paul's supporters in Bowling Green are unfazed by the flap.
"I didnt hear him say he was against the Civil Rights Act or against people having equal rights, so I'm still for him," said Rex Reed.
"If they gave him the chance to say everything he has to say, they would have the great appreciaton that we do," added Doris Burr.
"It's a lot of this explosion over something that really wasn't an issue and became an issue," Paul said, "But I understand that this is the way politics work. It will go back and forth. I mean, Jack Conway is going to have to defend President Obama on everything. President Obama is not very popular in Kentucky. It's an uphill battle for Conway to do that. He's going to have to defend his support of nationalizing healthcare, he's going to have to support and defend his support of cap and trade. There will be a lot of things that happen as this campaign goes out and this is the first of what will be a six month campaign.
During the Democratic primary campaign, Conway fought rival Daniel Mongiardo's characterization that Conway supported Cap and Trade legislation.
Conway plans to ask Paul about whether specific federal agencies and departments should exist.
Paul was asked directly on Friday, "Do you want to abolish the Department of Education?"
"No," he replied, "I say what we do is take a multi-step look at every department. but you do look at everything across the board and say 'what can we downsize? what can we privatize?'what can we eliminate?
"And there is a multi-step test. There may be some parts of the Department of Agricultiure that could be eliminated. There may be some that could be downsized. There may be some that could be made smaller. But, I think you have to have that stepwise approach to the entire budget or we're not going to get anwhere."
Despite the race-tinged firestorm of recent days, Paul delved into racial matters in Louisville, Kentucky's largest city.
"Louisville still is segregated. You think? In a way? Not officially, but there still is a large degree of ethnic separation of people in Louisville," Paul said, "The government hasn't fixed it and as a consequence I think there are educational disparities in Louisville. busing hasn't necessarily worked.
"But I think there are some things that could have worked. For example, I've talked to people in Louisville who tell me the civil rights issue of our era is school choice and education, letting kids in every part of the community decide where they want to go to school voluntarily. Let them choose to go to a school anywhere, not necessarily through forced busing but in choosing what school they go to. And that makes schools more competitive. It helps schools to be better. It helps kids of all socioecomnic and all racial backgrounds choose what edication to get."
Paul ended the interview to take a telephone call that sources say was from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Paul also spoke at length on Friday with U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) in what was described as a "cordial" conversation. Both McConnell and Rogers endorsed Grayson in the GOP primary.
Paul, Grayson and McConnell are scheduled to appear at a Republican Unity Rally in Frankfort on Saturday.