Steve Scalise's Problem Is the Republican Party's Problem

House Speaker John Boehner with House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (Photo: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Steve Scalise's Problem Is the Republican Party's Problem

David Duke is vouching for House majority whip Steve Scalise, the Louisiana conservative who is now the third-most-powerful Republican in the US House. As Scalise faces tough questions and criticism following the revelation that he was a presenter at a gathering of the former Klan leader's European-American Unity and Rights Organization, Duke attests that the congressman is "a fine family man and a good person."

David Duke is vouching for House majority whip Steve Scalise, the Louisiana conservative who is now the third-most-powerful Republican in the US House. As Scalise faces tough questions and criticism following the revelation that he was a presenter at a gathering of the former Klan leader's European-American Unity and Rights Organization, Duke attests that the congressman is "a fine family man and a good person."

Duke is even volunteering theories about how Scalise ended up at the 2002 meeting of a reasonably high-profile white supremacist group. The former grand wizard explains that the top Republican was "friendly" with a key campaign strategist for Duke's gubernatorial and US Senate bids in Louisiana. In fact, Federal Election Commission records reveal that the longtime Duke political aide in question, Kenny Knight, donated $1,000 to the 2008 campaign that saw Scalise make his move from state politics to Congress.

"All I know is that Kenny liked him," Duke toldThe Washington Post Tuesday. "He thought Scalise, who remember was just a state representative, was sharp. They'd talk about the Hollywood system, about the war, whatever I was concerned about." Knight confirms that he invited Scalise to the EURO meeting but suggests that Scalise was oblivious. "Steve was someone who I exchanged ideas with on politics," explained Knight, who was apparently trying to be helpful when he added, "We wouldn't talk about race or the Jewish question."

Perhaps the friendly prodding from Duke and Knight is helping Scalise to focus a bit. The Republican rising star struggled for the better part of two days to get clarity with regard to his appearance at a "white pride" event. Initially, his office tried to keep things vague, suggesting only that it was "likely" Scalise attended. Then, when it became clear he had been not just present but a presenter, Scalise started spinning scenarios that might explain it all away. Though he was a veteran state legislator by 2002, Scalise initially portrayed himself as a confused innocent when it came to accepting invitations. "I didn't know who all of these groups were and I detest any kind of hate group," he said, while the Post reported that the congressman's "confidants [are] e-mailing reporters and House members, assuring them that Scalise did not know the implications of his actions in 2002 and describing him as a disorganized and ill-prepared young politician who didn't pay close attention to invitations."

Only after more than a day of backlash did Scalise finally admit that he might have erred in speaking to Duke's allies. "It was a mistake I regret," he said Tuesday, "and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold."

Yet, even as he made his apology, Scalise was playing politics, suggesting that those who have criticized his appearance with white supremacists were doing so "for political gain."

The victim-of-partisanship gambit was undermined when conservative commentator Erick Erickson asked, "How the hell does somebody show up at a David Duke-organized event in 2002 and claim ignorance?"

Amid all the wrangling, one thing is certain: No matter how Scalise ended up peddling anti-tax and anti-big government dogma to Duke's allies, the newly minted top Republican (who moved up in the shuffle following former House majority leader Eric Cantor's primary defeat and resignation) is not being introduced to America in a manner that reinforces the message that the Grand Old Party has evolved into a twenty-first-century political home for all Americans.

Scalise became the fresh face of the Republican Party in 2014, the pick of the House Republican Caucus to play a critical leadership role as the party takes full control of Congress in January, 2015.

His leadership position and the recent revelations about his relatively recent past have combined to get everyone interested in learning more about Steve Scalise, a political careerist with a record.

Unfortunately for Scalise, that record does not respond well to scrutiny.

On Tuesday, it was recalled that the current House majority whip once told the Washington-insider newspaper Roll Call that, while he shared positions with Duke, Scalise thought he was more electable. Back in 1999, Roll Call reported:

Another potential candidate, state Rep. Steve Scalise (R), said he embraces many of the same "conservative" views as Duke, but is far more viable.

"The novelty of David Duke has worn off," said Scalise. "The voters in this district are smart enough to realize that they need to get behind someone who not only believes in the issues they care about, but also can get elected. Duke has proven that he can't get elected, and that's the first and most important thing."

As a state legislator who did get elected from the same precincts where Duke once ran strong, Scalise voted against legislation to establish protections for victims of hate crimes based on race. He also voted at least twice against recognizing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a state holiday.

In 1999, Scalise was one of just three "no" votes on a King holiday measure. Five years later, Scalise was one of just six Louisiana legislators who opposed King holiday legislation, versus 90 who supported it. He did this in 2004, two decades after the federal King holiday was established.

Scalise will continue to take hits for appearing at the European-American Unity and Rights Organization event. Presumably, he will continue to offer his regrets, along with the "disorganized and ill-prepared" excuse. And, presumably, that will continue to be a plausible enough explanation for House Speaker John Boehner--who says Scalise merely made an "error in judgment" --and the rest of Scalise's House Republican Caucus.

But, no matter what the congressman says about his presentation at an event organized by allies of David Duke, Scalise has more explaining to do.

For instance, the number-three Republican in the House really does need to explain what led him--years after the debate over the King holiday had ended even for dead-enders like Dick Cheney--to continue to vote against broadly supported measures honoring the nation's most iconic civil rights campaigner.

The Republican Party, which was founded by militant foes of the expansion of slavery, and which played a critical role in advancing the cause of civil rights in the 1950s and the 1960s, has in recent decades been accused--even by some Republicans--of abandoning its historic legacy. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus has focused a good deal of energy and resources on trying to improve the party's outreach to minority voters; "We've got to get this right," the chairman says of programs and messages directed at African-American, Latino and Asian-American voters.

Prominent national Republicans such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul (a potential 2016 presidential candidate) have made a serious effort to address issues of concern to African-American voters. Last year, for instance, Paul made what Talking Points Memo referred to as an "earnest, yet awkward, attempt at minority outreach" when he appeared at Howard University.

It will be hard for Republicans to suggest that they are on the side of the future when, at this point in American history, they have someone in a top leadership position in the House facing questions about his appearance at a white-supremacist event and who opposed the King holiday. If Boehner, Scalise and the rest of the Republican leadership team does not recognize this political reality, it is hard to imagine how the GOP is going to resolve the challenge that Priebus says is essential to its prospects as a national party

"Everyone has a story to tell," Priebus told the National Association of Black Journalists convention earlier this year, "and it's up to me and other people in the party to tell our story."

As a top congressional leader, Steve Scalise is now a central player in that Republican story. For so long as Scalise remains in leadership, it is not just the congressman but his party that has a lot of explaining to do.

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