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Rand Paul thinks criminal justice reform can win over the GOP. Is he crazy?

Rand Paul got a little flak on Twitter today for appearing to walk away from a question being asked by Guardian reporter Paul Lewis about whether criminal justice reform is a winning issue for white Republican voters:

The incident was characterized as Paul walking off "mid-interview." For what it's worth, it looks more to me like Lewis agreed to ask "one more question," Paul answered it, and then walked away rather than stay to answer a follow-up. That's more or less Paul's story, too:

What's interesting to me is why Lewis felt the need to ask a follow-up to begin with. The question at hand is a good one: whether Paul's crusade against mass incarceration is a winning strategy in a Republican primary. But it's clear the two sides are talking past each other.

Lewis cites polling data that shows that "white Republicans ... don't believe that the criminal law is applied in an unfair way." But he's making a huge leap in using that to imply that criminal justice reform is a losing issue for Republican primary voters.

For one thing, the question isn't whether Republican primary voters agree with Paul on criminal justice reform; the question is how many voters, donors, and volunteers will support him based on his positions on criminal justice, versus how many voters will disagree so strongly that they decide not to support him for that reason alone.

Many white Republicans probably don't care about criminal justice reform but don't hate the idea so much that they'd refuse to vote for someone they otherwise liked just because of it. And many white Republicans genuinely do care about criminal justice reform — just not for reasons of "fairness." The reason criminal justice reforms have passed at the state level is that liberal concerns about racial disparities and conservative concerns about government overreach and prison costs have aligned to reduce incarceration. It's totally possible for white Republican-primary voters to believe that criminal laws aren't applied unfairly but that there should simply be fewer of them. That's exactly what many of them do believe.

The challenge for Rand Paul is that he, unlike many other Republican criminal justice reformers, also cares about the racial disparities. And that's where Lewis is right that the way Paul talks about criminal justice might scare some voters off. Republicans have created a playbook for winning criminal justice reform without talking about race. But that's not the playbook Paul's using.

The more explicitly Paul deals with race, the more likely he is to say things that upset both liberals and conservatives — liberals who are liable to be frustrated with Paul's libertarian emphasis on the laws that exist rather than the police who enforce them, and conservatives who are okay with a criminal justice reformer as long as he doesn't "play the race card."