The political newcomer knocked off the GOP establishment's candidate, Trey Grayson, in Kentucky's Republican Senate primary on Tuesday and called it a "mandate" for the tea party's drive to limit Washington's power.
During a victory lap of interview programs the next day, Paul was asked about his belief that the Americans With Disabilities Act gave government too much authority over private business. NPR's Robert Siegel wanted to know whether Paul felt the same way about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as his Democratic opponent in the Senate race, Jack Conway, has claimed.
I'm opposed to institutional racism," Paul responded, adding that he would have marched with Dr. Martin Luther King if he'd been alive at the time. Although Paul said he supports nearly everything in the Civil Rights Act, he took issue with the part that outlaws discrimination by private businesses except for clubs.
Rachel Maddow pressed Paul on the question during a lengthy interview on her MSNBC program Wednesday night. She tried to get a clear answer on whether he thought the lunch counter at the Woolworth's in Greensboro, N.C. -- a flash point in the struggle for racial integration -- should have been allowed to remain segregated.
Paul said he didn't believe "any private property should discriminate" and insisted he would never patronize such a place. But he asked Maddow, "Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant or does the government own his restaurant?"
Paul accused Maddow of bringing up "something that really is not an issue ... sort of a red herring." But he faced the same question a month ago in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal's editorial board. (Click here to watch the video. Skip ahead to the one-hour mark.)
"Under your philosophy it would be OK for Dr. King to not be served at the counter at Woolworth's?" Paul was asked. He replied that he would have boycotted the store and denounced it, but added, "This is the hard part about believing in freedom."
A week later, the newspaper published an editorial saying Paul has "an unacceptable view of civil rights, saying that while the federal government can enforce integration of government jobs and facilities, private business people should be able to decide whether they want to serve black people, or gays, or any other minority group."
Because Paul has consistently expressed his personal opposition to discrimination, "there's really no wound inflicted here," argued Hot Air's Allapundit.
"His reservations about the law have to do not with the ends but with the means of federal compulsion; he wants business owners to serve everyone but clearly prefers using boycotts and local laws to pressure them. It's not a question of being pro- or anti-discrimination, in other words; it's a question of how federalism and civil rights enforcement mesh," the blogger wrote.
Trying to turn a question about racism into a philosophical discussion about federal power "may work well in the classroom, but it's a tricky position to take as a political candidate on national television," noted Susan Davis on the Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire blog.
"Rand Paul should have been better prepared to answer this question. This isn't the first time he has encountered it," said Clifton B, who blogs at Another Black Conservative. He said Paul is caught in a "Catch-22."
"If Paul says he fully supports how the feds forced the private sector to end segregation he loses libertarian street cred, but by only supporting the results of the Civil Rights Act and not the actual legislation, Paul gives the left room to paint him as a racist," Clifton B wrote.
The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates also criticized Paul for responding to Maddow "with a series of feints and dodges."
"What's most troubling about this interview is not that Paul opposes a portion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it's that it's clear Paul hasn't thought much about his position," Coates said. "Lacking a rigorous intellectual framework for his opposition, Paul is wobbly on defense."
Similar, if snarkier, criticism came from Gawker's Adrian Chen, who decoded Paul's remarks this way: "But it's simple: Rand Paul hates racism, but wants to allow businesses to be racist. He would definitely support a segregated Applebee's as long as it instantly went bankrupt because no one liked its racist food. He basically loves the idea of the possibility that somewhere in America someone could open up a racist business, but as soon as that business becomes a reality he hates it."
Paul issued a statement this morning that still didn't answer the lunch counter question directly but backed the current law.
"Even though this matter was settled when I was 2, and no serious people are seeking to revisit it except to score cheap political points, I unequivocally state that I will not support any efforts to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964," Paul declared.
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"What a disappointment. Rand Paul is just another politician who won't give a straight answer to a simple question," lamented Kansas City Star reader George Harris.
Even Paul's tea party supporters "won't enjoy watching him look like a slippery politician as he fails, over and over, to answer Maddow's questions directly," added Salon's Joan Walsh.
"He turned into a politician before our very eyes. This champion of the truth-telling Tea Partiers waffled and dodged like the most seasoned of pols," Michael Sean Winters charged in America magazine. He said there's no reason to doubt Paul is against discrimination, but that's not the question.
"The question is about the role of government in society and whether or not the federal government was right to insist that it be against the law to discriminate on the basis of race in private businesses that serve the public," Winters argued.
"He would not answer. His career as a non-politician politician lasted less than 24 hours."