|Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A3 POLITICSMAY 22, 2010 Republican candidate Rand Paul's controversial remarks on the 1964 Civil Rights Act unsettled GOP leaders this past week, but the comments reflect deeply held iconoclastic beliefs of some in his party, and many in the tea-party movement, that the U.S. government shook its constitutional moorings more than 70 years ago.|
Mr. Paul and his supporters rushed to emphasize that his remarks didn't reflect racism but a sincerely held, libertarian belief that the federal government, starting in the Roosevelt era, gained powers that set the stage for decades of improper intrusions on private businesses.
Mr. Paul, the newly minted U.S. Senate nominee in Kentucky, again made headlines Friday when he told ABC's "Good Morning America" that President Barack Obama's criticism of energy giant BP was "really un-American."
That followed a tussle over the landmark civil-rights law, which Mr. Paul embraced after suggesting Wednesday that the act may have gone too far in mandating the desegregation of private businesses.
Late Friday, NBC said that Mr. Paul had canceled a scheduled appearance on the Sunday morning show "Meet the Press," a rare development in the history of the widely watched political program. The network said it was asking Mr. Paul to reconsider.
In tea-party circles, Mr. Paul's views are not unusual. They fit into a "Constitutionalist" view under which the federal government has no right to dictate the behavior of private enterprises. On the stump, especially among tea-party supporters, Mr. Paul says "big government" didn't start with Mr. Obama, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society of the 1960s or the advance of central governance sparked by World War II and the economic boom that followed.
He traces it to 1937, when the Supreme Court, under heated pressure from President Franklin Roosevelt, upheld a state minimum-wage law on a 5-4 vote, ushering in the legal justification for government intervention in private markets. Until the case, West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, the Supreme Court had sharply limited government action that impinged on the private sector.
"It didn't start last year. I think it started back in 1936 or 1937, and I point really to a couple of key constitutional cases… that all had to do with the Commerce Clause," Mr. Paul said in an interview before Tuesday's election.
Mr. Paul has said that, if elected, one of his first demands will be that Congress print the constitutional justification on any law it passes.
Last week, Mr. Paul encouraged a tea-party gathering in Louisville to look at the origins of "unconstitutional government." He told the crowd there of Wickard v. Filburn, in which the Supreme Court rejected the claims of farmer Roscoe Filburn that wheat he grew for his own use was beyond the reach of federal regulation. The 1942 ruling upheld federal laws limiting wheat production, saying Mr. Filburn's crop affected interstate commerce. Even if he fed his wheat to his own livestock, the court reasoned, he was implicitly affecting wheat prices.
"That's when we quit owning our own property," Mr. Paul told the crowd.
In an interview, Mr. Paul expressed support for purely in-state gun industries, in which firearms are produced in one state with no imported parts and no exports. Guns produced under those circumstances can't be subjected to a federal background check, waiting period or other rules, he reasons.
"I'm not for having a civil war or anything like that, but I am for challenging federal authority over the states, through the courts, to see if we can get some better rulings," he said.
To supporters, such ideological purity has made the Bowling Green ophthalmologist a hero.
"He's going back to the Constitution," said Heather Toombs, a Louisville supporter who came to watch him at a meet-and-greet at a suburban home last week. "He's taking back the government."
But to Democrats, some Republicans and some libertarians, Mr. Paul's arguments seem detached from the social fabric that has bound the U.S. together. The federal government puts limits on pollutants from corporations, monitors the safety of toys and other products and ensures a safe food supply—much of which Mr. Paul's philosophy could put in question.
David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, said that in many ways Americans are freer now than they were in any pre-1937 libertarian Halcyon day. Women and black citizens can vote, work and own property. Certain "micro-regulations" that existed before the shift are gone. "Sometimes he talks the way libertarians talk in political seminars," Mr. Boaz said of Mr. Paul.
"Rand Paul apparently has a deeply held conviction that corporations should be allowed to do what they see fit without oversight or accountability," Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, Mr. Paul's opponent in the Senate contest, said.
—Jean Spencer and Douglas A. Blackmon contributed
to this article.