The more things change, the more they stay the same. It was just last week that many Republican leaders finally came around on the issue of the Confederate flag, but just days after activist Bree Newsome scaled the flagpole in Columbia, SC to take down that flag, one Republican leader opened up channels with a white activist who pines for the days of slavery. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) met with Bundy during a campaign stop in Nevada on Monday, a move that only merited a single mention on cable news, from Ed Schultz's The Ed Show:
In case you've forgotten, Bundy is the Nevada rancher whose armed posse showed America just how good it is to be white by driving away federal authorities at gunpoint, and becoming an overnight conservative superhero in the process. That stardom was short-lived, however, when Bundy went off on a racist rant that was insufficiently coded to allow his fans plausible deniability:
With the Confederate flag coming down and black churches going up in flames in the wake of the Charleston mass killing, you would think that every politician would steer clear of Bundy and his racist baggage, but especially the politician charged with heading the Republican Party's outreach to black voters. You would also think that such a visit would receive intense scrutiny from the cable news channels, rather than a single segment on MSNBC. You would be wrong on all counts.
What is certain is that Rand Paul met with Bundy, a meeting which the Associated Pressdownplayed as occurring "during a question-and-answer session in the town of Mesquite with about 50 supporters and activists," but which, according to Bundy, included a private 45-minute conversation. Bloomberg's Dave Weigel got Bundy's side of the story:
“I didn’t ask for the time,” Bundy told Bloomberg. “I was happy to just shake his hand. But between him and his staff, they were interested. After the meet-and-greet, they picked me out and took me in the back alleyway, and said we’d get time to talk. He dealt with the media, then they found a room, and we sat for 45 minutes.”
Paul's campaign disputed Bundy's version without really disputing it, telling Politico that "There were no scheduled meetings at Senator Paul’s stop in Mesquite. He spoke to many people who came to this public event, none for 45 minutes and none planned,” which really only means that everything Bundy said was true, except he talked to Paul for 44 or 46 minutes.
What's telling is that Paul not only felt the need to grant Bundy an audience, he also recognized the need to downplay the meeting. Paul's libertarian leanings and states'-rights posture make him more susceptible to Bundy's influence, but Weigel reports another fascinating detail about his interview with Bundy:
(Bundy) had to educate the country about his interpretation of the Constitution. He’d supported Ron Paul for president in 2012, but he would remain neutral in 2016, all the better to have honest conversations with the candidates.
“I would like to meet with them,” Bundy told Bloomberg. “If they seek me out, I sure will sit down and talk. I want them to understand the Constitution of the United States..."
What makes Bundy's invitation plausible is this vast Republican field, in which single digits separate the top tier from the rest, and in which the early states figure to make Nevada's February 23 caucuses a key battleground for the GOP nomination. There's every chance that Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina could each go to different candidates, making Nevada the place for someone new to put points on the board. That leaves at least eleven candidates who will be desperate for an edge in the state, and Bundy a way to gain one.
It wouldn't be at all surprising to see the likes of Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, or Mike Huckabee courting Cliven Bundy, but if someone like Jeb Bush doesn't manage to score in the first three contests, how will he deal with Bundy? Aside from denunciations by a handful of liberals, Rand Paul hasn't paid much of a price for meeting with Cliven Bundy, which, I suspect, is a function of the media's infatuation with Paul's chatter about criminal justice reform and marijuana policy.
What price there is to pay likely won't be felt at all in the Republican primaries, where minority outreach amounts to courting people who have one black friend. Unfortunately, it appears they can count on the media to downplay Bundy's racism, if they cover it at all.