Politics is weird. It has a strange way of turning seemingly stodgy, well-heeled people into screaming lunatics, and even transforming said lunatics into intimate bedfellows, sidling up to the very ideological opponents thought to be their sworn enemies. Like the time that Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi yukked it up on a couch. Or when Arianna Huffington—the Republican version—literally got into bed with Al Franken and Barney Frank, a super-liberal then-Congressman from Massachusetts. Now, we can add to that list the time that libertarian icon Rand Paul had a cozy breakfast with Al Sharpton.
This unexpected morning summit, which Sharpton's office requested, took place Thursday, in the exclusive Senate dining room. Both Sharpton and Paul characterized it as a cordial attempt to create dialogue across the political aisle and discuss the rare issues that the libertarian-leaning Republican Senator and the liberal reverend agree on.
"We talked about his position on dealing with some criminal justice issues that I am concerned about," Sharpton said in a statement after the meeting. "It was a very candid and courteous conversation. We pledged to continue to have such conversations where conservatives and progressives can have dialogue and break the log jam in American discussion."
In the past 18 months, Paul, who is almost certainly running for president in 2016, has made a major push to reach out to leaders in the black community, building his nascent White House campaign around the idea that he can broaden the Republican Party base by appealing to youth and minority voters. He's given speeches at Howard University and the National Urban League Conference, co-sponsored legislation with New Jersey's Cory Booker to reform drug sentencing laws, and recently visited Ferguson, Missouri, to meet with black pastors about racial unrest there. Occasionally, these efforts are tone-deaf—in a Q&A with Salon published Thursday, for instance, Paul said, "I don't think there has been anybody who has been a bigger defender of minority rights in the Congress than myself." By and large, though, the senator's outreach has been well-received, even among Democratic leaders.
But Sharpton is by far the most high-profile black figure that Paul has met with as he attempts to expand his appeal beyond Tea Partiers and libertarians. Despite being a caricature of himself, Sharpton remains the most powerful civil rights figure in the country, spearheading marches and rallies—and putting racial profiling and police brutality on the map as political issue in the process.
In recent years, he has also become a political powerbroker, particularly on the progressive end of the spectrum. He's a close advisor of President Barack Obama and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and regularly hosts conferences and fundraisers where a parade of Democrats show up to kiss his ring. And Sharpton continues to incite action around racial issues: On Wednesday, the day before his meeting with Paul, he told reporters that he and his organization, the National Action Network, are on "high alert" for the coming grand jury decision on whether to indict the white police officer who shot black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson this summer. According to Sharpton, his group is planning vigils and protests in at least two dozen cities, regardless of the grand jury outcome.
"Both Senator Paul and Reverend Sharpton have been very outspoken on the issue of criminal justice reform," Paul's press secretary, Eleanor May, said in a statement to VICE. "They plan to have more meetings in the future and will work together to implement meaningful reforms within our broken criminal justice system."
Associating himself with Sharpton is a high-risk—and potentially high-reward—decision for Paul, who is about to fight what is likely to be a crowded field of Republican 2016 presidential candidates. Sharpton has been a target of conservative critics for years, pilloried and ridiculed by the right as a 90s race riot relic-turned-cable-news-hack who traffics in demagoguery. It hasn't helped that the man is relentlessly besieged by news reports about his financial and legal troubles, like this week's New York Times story finding Sharpton owes more than $4.5 million in state and federal tax liens.
In a blog post for the American Spectator Thursday, conservative writer Aaron Goldstein went after Paul for the meeting, warning his fellow Republicans that Paul's breakfast meeting should disqualify him from getting their party's nomination.
"This is the same Al Sharpton who has more than anyone in America stoked the threats of violence in Ferguson should the grand jury render a decision not to their liking," Goldstein wrote. "Anyone who still thinks the GOP nominating Paul to be its presidential nominee in 2016 is a good idea should pause to consider Paul's judgment in seeking out Sharpton in the first place."
But liberal politicians have long since realized that it is more dangerous to ignore the Reverend than to deal with him. Judging from Paul and Sharpton's chummy post-breakfast tweets, it seems the ambitious Kentucky Republican has learned the same.
Like I said, politics is weird.
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