The news has broken that once and future GOP Whip, Louisiana Representative Steve Scalise, spoke at conference hosted by the group founded by Louisiana politician and egregious racist David Duke:
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise spoke to a gathering of white nationalists in 2002, his office confirmed on Monday.
Mr. Scalise, then a Louisiana state legislator, spoke to a suburban New Orleans conference of an organization founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. His spokeswoman said Monday that the third-ranking House Republican, who was elected to a fourth full term last month, was at the time campaigning against a state ballot initiative and didn’t know who was in every group to whom he spoke.
There are two parts to the controversy. Did Scalise know who he was speaking to? Does it matter?
Did he know who he was talking to?
Louisiana isn't a big state. State legislative districts aren't particularly large. In Mr. Scalise's case, when he spoke to this group he'd been serving in the Louisiana legislature since 1996. David Duke and his operation were not obscure. In 1991, Duke won the GOP gubernatorial nomination and faced known felon Edwin Edwards in the general election. This resulted in former governor Buddy Roemer who had campaigned, unsuccessfully, on the slogan "Anyone but Edwards" deciding that "Anyone" did not extend to a former KKK Grand Dragon.
The anti-Duke bumper sticker
For Mr. Scalise to creditably claim he was unaware of the nature of the group we all have to be idiots.
Duke said Scalise was invited to the conf. by two of his longtime associates, Howie Farrell and Kenny Knight
— Robert Costa (@costareports) December 30, 2014
Keep in mind that Howie Farrell had been David Duke's campaign manager and Kenny Knight was Duke's "political advisor." From the Washington Post:
Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke said late Monday that his longtime political adviser, Kenny Knight, was “friendly” with House Majority Whip [mc_name name='Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA)' chamber='house' mcid='S001176' ] (R-La.) in 2002, and cited that relationship as the reason Scalise accepted an invitation that year to speak at a gathering of white supremacists.
“Scalise would communicate a lot with my campaign manager, Kenny Knight,” Duke said in a phone interview. “That is why he was invited and why he would come. Kenny knew Scalise, Scalise knew Kenny. They were friendly.”
The fact that Scalise would trot out an utterly unbelievable excuse speaks to his character and his opinion of the intelligence of not only the GOP but the average American. It is actually harder to decide which is worse in this case: him knowing and pandering to an essentially racist audience a decade after Duke's populist star had immolated or him actually not knowing.
Does it matter?
Life isn't fair. Let's keep this in mind as we think this through. While politicians may have to meet with all manner of disreputable people, all disreputable people are not the same. But not only are all disreputable people not the same, all political parties are not the same. The Democrats can embrace a man who specializes in creating violent demonstrations that sometimes result in people being killed (that would be Al Sharpton), they can embrace a shameless race-baiter, anti-Semite and shakedown artist (that would be Jesse Jackson), they can embrace a racist black separatist (my colleague Leon Wolf gives an epic quiz on this subject), and they can raise a former officer or the Ku Klux Klan to number three in the order of succession to the presidency and make him their majority leader in the Senate (this would by Robert C. Byrd). The rules are really different for Republican officials. Remember Trent Lott was driven from his leadership position by a toss off comment at the 100th birthday party for Senator Strom Thrumond. We already know that Mr. Scalise brings nothing to the House leadership team that benefits conservatives. At best he's lukewarm to conservatism and is much more likely to be a creature of K Street (see my comment about meeting with disreputable people) than a servant of the American people. So whether he stays or goes is largely immaterial to conservatives since John Boehner and Kevin McCarthy aren't going to allow an actual conservative to have access to formal power. The GOP, on the other hand, should be considering what it will be like going into the 2016 presidential campaign with the House Majority Whip associated, no matter how tangentially, with David Duke, the KKK, and a white supremacist organization. They should be thinking how the dynamic of the campaign will work with everyone of our potential nominees being asked to disavow Scalise's meeting with this group. None of this is to say that Scalise is racist or has any sympathy for racists. My colleague, Joe Cunningham, quotes Louisiana Democrat Cedric Richmond as saying, “I don’t think he has a racist bone in his body.” But neither can we say that Scalise is above pandering to the lowest possible denominator in Southern politics: race. In 1999 and 2004 he voted against a bill making the federal Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday a state holiday. And this:
In 2011, Scalise endorsed then-state Rep. John LaBruzzo's re-election campaign in the district that had once been represented by Duke. He did so despite the fact that just three years earlier, LaBruzzo, a Republican, got into hot water for proposing to pay poor women to be sterilized or otherwise to not have children, while rich, better-educated women could be given incentives to reproduce.
While Scalise isn't racist, his judgment leaves a lot to be desired. Let's go back to the first sentence in this section. Life isn't fair. Now this whole imbroglio could have been avoided if the GOP establishment had invested a tiny bit of effort in vetting Steve Scalise for the position. I mean vetting is what they are about, right?
I mean in Mississippi, Chris McDaniel was deemed to be beyond The Pale because he'd spoke at a county fair where a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans had a booth selling Confederate memorabilia. One would think that accepting an invitation to speak to a white supremacist group would at least be as bad, right?
Mr. Scalise needs to step down as Majority Whip. He has the political equivalent of a sucking chest wound. He's a net liability for the GOP in any leadership position. He should have the maturity and judgment to realize that.