Barring new and jarring developments, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise is going to survive the story that he addressed a conference of white supremacists in 2002.
Unless further evidence emerges of liaisons with the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, or EURO, Scalise will take his oath next week for the 114th Congress as the No. 3 leader of the chamber’s GOP — the party’s largest majority since 1928.
That was the message tucked into the bouquet of supporting statements Scalise received Tuesday from Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other prominent Republicans.
Yes, Scalise had to grovel a bit, apologizing for the long-buried episode and denouncing the forbidden audience at issue and its anti-minority, anti-Semitic views. But with that out of the way, the speaker absolved him of further responsibility for this “mistake.”
Scolded and scalded, Scalise was still standing.
Suffice it to say that the whip’s protestations of innocence about EURO and its views have strained credulity, both in Washington and in Louisiana. EURO was co-founded in the 1990s by David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader and American Nazi. Duke at that time had run for governor and for the U.S. Senate as an insurgent Republican, doing well enough in both cases to distress the national GOP and attract news attention from around the world.
In his moment, Duke was a national figure and an absolute hero to some in Louisiana. Everything he did drew local notice, especially in the white suburbs of New Orleans where he had actually won majorities in his statewide contests. Scalise represented some of this very same territory in the state Legislature, and while he was not a Duke supporter, he had shown active interest in the votes of those who were.
Duke himself has said Scalise was invited to that 2002 EURO convention by people they both knew. Even conservative firebrand Erick Erickson at RedState.com weighed in, asking: “How the hell does somebody show up at a David Duke organized event in 2002 and claim ignorance?”
No one has quite answered that question, including Scalise.
So why was he treated with kid gloves?
Here are six reasons Scalise will survive this firestorm:
- The backing from key people of color in Louisiana. Gov. Bobby Jindal, son of immigrants from India, was among the first to speak up on Scalise’s behalf. Even more important was the testimony of Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, the African-American Democrat who represents the congressional district based in New Orleans. “Steve doesn’t have a racist bone in his body,” said Richmond, using what was once a favorite line of Ronald Reagan. Richmond’s urban 2nd District lies cheek by jowl beside Scalise’s suburban-exurban 1st, and the two are mirror reversals of race: Nearly two-thirds of Richmond’s constituents are black; more than three-fourths of Scalise’s are white. The racial divide is more lopsided here than anywhere else in Louisiana. But as it happens, Richmond and Scalise have been friends since they served together in the Legislature through most of the past decade. This was the hour when Scalise needed a friend, and Richmond was there.
- The politics of leadership in the House. Boehner’s team can survive its lack of diversity in race and gender, but it must have balance in terms of geography and ideology. Scalise is in the leadership in large part because he is from the Deep South, which is the richest vein of Republican voting in the country. Nearly half the Republican majority now hails from Southern states. Scalise is also in the leadership because, as former chairman of the Republican Study Committee, he can speak to the hard core of conservatism at the heart of his party’s majority.
- The mechanics of choosing leaders in Congress. Replacing a leader in either chamber in either party is easier said than done. Boehner is not empowered to remove Scalise. Only a caucus vote among all the members of the Republican majority could do that. And for Boehner to push for such a showdown might imperil his own sometimes tenuous job security. In the past, other speakers have tolerated offensive behavior on the part of their junior officers rather than seek a confrontation in the caucus.
- The passage of time. While Duke was once a very big deal, he peaked a generation ago. Nowadays, most Americans may well ask “David who?” Scalise did not invoke the “youthful indiscretion” defense, but the fact that this speech happened a dozen years ago, when he was a junior legislator scuffling for attention, makes a difference. Consider this: If Scalise had addressed this group last week or even last year, the story’s impact would have been far greater and probably fatal to his career.
- The absence of an alpha authority figure in the GOP. There is no one in the party right now who could step in and sweep all else aside, as President George W. Bush did in an analogous situation in 2002. Right after the midterm elections, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi was set to become Senate majority leader, but at a 100th-birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond, Lott said some nice things about the South Carolinian’s segregationist campaign for president in 1948. Media reports and ensuing controversy seemed contained until Bush went after Lott in a speech to a black audience. Within days, support for Lott had collapsed, and the leader’s laurels were passed to another senator whom the White House preferred.
- The nature of Scalise’s detractors. As soon as the Scalise story broke on Monday many Democrats and liberal commentators urged the Louisianan to leave the leadership or resign from Congress. The editorial board of the Chicago Tribune joined the chorus. Peter Wehner, once an aide to President George W. Bush and often a critic of his party, said Scalise would be “acidic” in the leadership and weaken efforts to reach out to minority voters. But in another example of the jujitsu effect in politics, the lineup of those denouncing Scalise served to harden the resolve of his defenders. Scalise’s friends are not about to let the media or Peter Wehner or any other party mavericks tell them who their leaders should be.