Rand Paul's speech at Howard University this week was widely panned, with much of the criticism coming from the left. Yet Artur Davis, a black Republican who switched from the Democratic party to the GOP in 2012, also slammed Paul's performance, calling it a "wasted day."
It's way premature to say the Kentucky senator wasted his time at Howard. But much of the criticism by Davis and others of Paul's speech was well founded. Paul's remarks were uneven and clumsy, and the Republican lawmaker exposed his own ignorance of his audience.
And that's why it was worth doing.
During the roughest portion of his speech, as Paul was fumbling for words, he let slip a line that - if he is sincere about genuine, sustained interaction minority voters - was significant.
"I'm trying to find out what the connection is," he said, apparently speaking of himself and his audience.
Indeed. And the only way to figure out how to connect with African-Americans and other minorities is to do what the 50-year old senator did: spend time with them, talk to them, more importantly listen to them, figure out what you don't know and what they don't know, and then try to find areas of agreement to build on.
Much was said after the 2012 election about how Republicans had given up on minorities, especially black voters. The first step, the bare minimum, some said, is to at least make an effort to go to where they are and talk with them (not at them).
Well, that's what Paul did at Howard and then again Friday at another historically black university, Simmons College of Kentucky. Admittedly, Paul did talk at the Howard students some, and that's what produced some of his worst moments.
Adam Serwer wrote that Paul didn't "deserve a gold star" just because he spoke at Howard. Of course he doesn't. But Paul is hopefully not doing this to simply score political points in some short-sighted attempt to build "buzz." He said himself on Friday that he's doing it to win over voters. And if the 2012 Obama ground game taught us anything, it's that building relationships is a key element of building support.
Time will tell if Paul, and the Republican party in general, is genuinely committed to an ongoing, sustained effort. But the only way to make any progress starts with the kind of stumbling, awkward, and lesson-producing effort that Paul made this week.