RAND PAUL, THE CIVIL RIGHTS ACT, AND ‘THE HARD PART’ OF ‘FREEDOM’…. When Rand Paul, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky, sat down with the editorial board of the Louisville Courier-Journal, the paper understandably wanted to get a better sense of the right-wing ophthalmologist’s ideology. It led to a logical question about the scope of government power.

INTERVIEWER: Would you have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

PAUL: I like the Civil Rights Act in the sense that it ended discrimination in all public domains, and I’m all in favor of that.


PAUL: You had to ask me the “but.” I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners — I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant — but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I absolutely think there should be no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that’s most of what I think the Civil Rights Act was about in my mind.

When the interviewer noted that Paul’s approach would have allowed lunch counters to deny service to Dr. Martin Luther King, based on nothing but his race, the Republican candidate said he would not go to that lunch counter, and he would criticize that lunch counter, but suggested it would be wrong to legally prohibit a business from discriminating. “[T]his,” Paul said, “is the hard part about believing in freedom.”

This wasn’t an isolated exchange. Paul was on NPR yesterday, explaining that he only supports laws to prohibit “institutional” racism, not discrimination in private enterprise.

Paul then spoke to Rachel Maddow last night on MSNBC, and during the interview, the Republican candidate was more than a little evasive, perhaps realizing that his ideological extremism probably doesn’t sound compelling to the American mainstream. Nevertheless, when Paul was asked about the desegregation of lunch counters, he replied, “Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant? These are important philosophical debates but not a very practical discussion.”

Rachel replied, “Well, it was pretty practical to the people who had the life nearly beaten out of them trying to desegregate Walgreen’s lunch counters despite these esoteric debates about what it means about ownership. This is not a hypothetical Dr. Paul.”

I have to admit, I find myself at a rare loss for words. At a certain level, I just find it painful to fathom the notion that, in the 21st century, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate would publicly express his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I’m well aware of the dangerous shift of today’s GOP, but I like to think there are some lines that even Republicans wouldn’t cross. And yet, here we are.

We all casually throw around words like “crazy” and “fringe” when describing contemporary politics, but once in a while, developments like Rand Paul’s candidacy come along, and the need to reevaluate the blurred lines between Republican politics and sheer madness becomes apparent.

In the larger context, I also suppose it’s time to start asking Republican leaders across the country a straightforward question: “Your party’s Senate candidate in Kentucky has a problem with the Civil Rights Act. Do you think he’s right or wrong?”

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.