House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) is currently weathering day two of a scandal involving his (allegedly unwitting) appearance at a 2002 white supremacist conference, and if he isn't already, Senator and presidential hopeful Rand Paul (R-Ky.) ought to be watching the scoreboard. On Monday, The Washington Post's Robert Costa confirmed a local Louisiana blog's report that Scalise spoke at a 2002 conference for the David Duke-founded European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), and in the gaping news hole that is New Year's week, the Scalise fallout is pretty much the only political story in town.
Scalise, for his part, has essentially stuck to the premise that he didn't know he was speaking at a David Duke event, that he was speaking to everyone back then (even Women Voters!), and that just because racists liked his policies doesn't mean he likes racists. What little reaction there has been from Republicans so far has consisted of their intuitions that Scalise is not a racist (which is not what anyone is accusing him of, to be clear). Republican congressional leaders, meanwhile, were slow to react to the news. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) finally released a written statement Tuesday afternoon expressing support for Scalise, and showing the general contours of the Scalise defense::
“More than a decade ago, Representative Scalise made an error in judgment, and he was right to acknowledge it was wrong and inappropriate. Like many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, I know Steve to be a man of high integrity and good character. He has my full confidence as our Whip, and he will continue to do great and important work for all Americans.”
Scalise has also released a new statement, upgrading his participation in the conference from "likely" to definite, and hitting the same notes Boehner did: It was a long time ago, I'm basically a good guy with good ideas, and I'm not a racist:
"Twelve years ago, I spoke to many different Louisiana groups as a state representative, trying to build support for legislation that focused on cutting wasteful state spending, eliminating government corruption, and stopping tax hikes,” Scalise said. "One of the many groups that I spoke to regarding this critical legislation was a group whose views I wholeheartedly condemn. It was a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold."
Time, and the media winds, will tell if Scalise's strategy holds up. Boehner's statement isn't much for Scalise to hang his hat on, and is made more tepid by the fact that it was delivered in writing, rather than to a flesh-and-blood reporter who could ask questions. If the knives that are out for Scalise begin to cut too deeply, Boehner can still keep a safe distance.
Those knives, though, aren't coming from the left, but from the right. The loudest and hardest criticism has come from the likes of Redstate's Erick Erickson, who calls bullshit on Scalise's claim of ignorance, and arguing for his removal from leadership. This isn't because Erickson finds Scalise's sin egregious, but so he can get someone wingnuttier installed in Scalise's place (and Boehner's). If the fallout from Scalise-gate mounts, it will be from Republicans coveting his power. Scalise's fate is far from settled, as evidenced by the silence from 2016 GOP contenders, waiting to see which way the wind blows.
One of those contenders, Rand Paul, has many more reasons to sit quietly and wait. Paul is much more vulnerable than Scalise on this issue, and has used some of the same strategies to avoid it. One of Paul's challenges will be to overcome an association with someone who did more than host a conference he spoke at: Ron Paul, Rand's father, has a long history of white supremacist leanings that his son will be pressed on if he runs for president, including a familiar-sounding assessment of David Duke. After praising Duke's performance in the 1990 Senate race, Ron Paul opined that Duke's problem wasn't the pig, it was the lipstick:
In 1991, a newsletter asked, “Is David Duke’s new prominence, despite his losing the gubernatorial election, good for anti-big government forces?” The conclusion was that “our priority should be to take the anti-government, anti-tax, anti-crime, anti-welfare loafers, anti-race privilege, anti-foreign meddling message of Duke, and enclose it in a more consistent package of freedom.”
That explanation sounds a lot like what Scalise said about Duke in 1999, with Scalise claiming the superior lipstick:
“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.”
Perhaps it's too much to expect from our political media, but Rand Paul, and every other Republican, for that matter, should be asked which of Duke's policies they disagree with, and why white supremacists are so attracted to them.
Rand Paul himself has accepted donations from white supremacists, and hired the same spokesman who flacked Ron Paul through his own Stormfront donations controversy. Paul spokesman Jesse Benton told the Lone Star Times that Ron Paul had "never met or communicated with Don Black," even though Paul was photographed with the Stormfront founder at the Values Voter Summit days earlier. As Rand Paul's Senate campaign manager, Benton officially endorsed "Southern Avenger" Jack Hunter's bid for a national radio show, calling him "a friend and a peer that I really look up to," and "a leader of our movement, and our generation."
By the time the "Southern Avenger" story blew up in Rand Paul's face, Benton had moved on to Mitch McConnell's campaign, but that didn't stop him from trying to run interference for Rand. Senator Paul, meanwhile, tried to stick with Hunter until that position became untenable.
Luckily for Paul, he wasn't running for president then, or when he said he didn't really believe in the Civil Rights Act, because he could just throw a hissy fit when pressed on the issue. That won't work in 2016, and so the success or failure of the Scalise strategy will be something of a bellwether. Just like Scalise, Rand Paul's Southern Avenger woes were not brought on by liberal opponents, they were surfaced by a conservative paper that had ideological differences with Paul. If he thinks conservative contempt for racial politics will save him, Rand Paul has another thing coming.